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October 17, 2019

"Getting There" - Connecticut's Own Igor Sikorsky

Have you ever flown in a helicopter?  They seem such a glamorous (if expensive) way to travel, bypassing the traffic enroute to the airport or sightseeing over rugged terrain.

But do you know that the helicopter had its first flight ever right here in Connecticut, the creation of Russian immigrant and inventor Igor Sikorsky, 80 years ago.

Sure, Leonardo da Vinci made early drawings of a vertical flying machine, but that was in the 1480’s.  And kids had been playing with hand-turned, propeller-driven toys for centuries before that.

Sikorsky drew his earliest concept drawings of a helicopter years before the Wright brothers ever flew at Kitty Hawk.  But when he fled Russia with his family, it was fixed-wing aircraft that gave Sikorsky his start in aviation.

At the age of 21 he designed his first airplane, the S-1, a single-engine pusher biplane. Twenty-three designs later he built the S-42 flying boat, made famous by Pan American as “The Flying Clipper”.  The four-engined craft had a range of 1200 miles carrying 37 passengers by day or 14 by night in berths, cruising at 170 mph.

Even as Pan Am was opening literally over-seas markets, Sikorsky was still working on his dreams of a helicopter.  At his plant in Stratford his VS-300 made its first flight, albeit tied to the ground, in September of 1939.

A 1942 version, the Sikorsky R-4, became the first mass-produced helicopter, quickly adopted by the armed forces of the US and UK. It had only one crew member, could only carry 500 pounds, but had a range of 130 miles flying 65 mph at up to 8000 feet.

Flash forward to the present and Sikorsky’s old company, now part of Lockheed Martin, still produces helicopters. Sikorsky’s successor companies, then part of United Aircraft Corp, even designed the short-lived (1968 -1976) Turbotrain, powered by a Pratt & Whitney turbine “jet engine”.  The train could make the 230 mile New York to Boston run in three hours and 39 minutes.  Today’s Acela can do the same run in no less than 3 hours 55 minutes.

In a competition with the electric-powered Metroliner in 1967, the Turbotrain hit 170 mph, a land speed record for a gas turbine-powered rail vehicle. Acela does no better than 145 mph.

Today’s modern helicopters come in all sizes and speeds… from the beefy Seahawk SH-3 “Sea King” which can carry five tons over 600 miles at 166 mph… to “personal” helicopters for one person flying 60 miles at 80 mph.

For helicopter fans, New York’s east-side heliports at Wall Street and 34th Street offer the chance to see luxury craft in action, some privately owned, others offering passenger service.  BLADE Helicopters will get you to the Hamptons from midtown in 33 minutes starting at $695 one-way.  

In the 1960’s NY Helicopter flew from the NY airports to the top of the Pan Am building. I took that flight once, transferred to an elevator and walked onto a train in Grand Central.  For awhile they even choppered to Stamford’s heliport on Canal Street in the South End.

Much has changed in aviation in the last 80 years since Sikorsky’s first helicopter took to the air.  And to think that it all started here in Connecticut.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

October 10, 2019

"Getting There" - Amtrak's Next Acela

I’m a big fan of high speed trains, which means I often ride Amtrak’s Acela to Boston or Washington.  It’s the best train in North America, though it pales in comparison to true HSR (high speed rail) in Europe or Asia.

While Acela can hit a top speed of 150 mph, it does so on only 34 of the 457 miles between DC and Boston.  Over the entire run, what with congestion and station stops, it only averages about 70 mph.

But its 20 runs a day are highly popular, especially with business travelers on expense accounts (the fares are roughly double usual coach fares).  The trains are often sold out and, depending on whose accounting you trust, actually make a profit for the quasi-public corporation, carrying 3.4 million passengers a year:  25% of Amtrak’s total revenue.

As well maintained as the Acela fleet is, it’s getting old.  The trains have been running almost 20 years old and they’re too small, carrying just 304 passengers per trip.  Compare that to the Eurostar from London to Paris (750 passengers per train) or Japan’s Shinkansen from Tokyo to Osaka (1300 passengers).

So, Amtrak is building the next generation of Acela.

When it was shopping for the first Acela, Amtrak tested two European designs… the Swedish X2000 tilt-train and the German ICE Train.  Liking elements of both, they opted for neither, instead going for a brand new design custom built by Bombardier and Alstom.  This time they’re going with a proven design modeled after Alstom’s French TGV and Italy’s Pendolino.

The new Acelas will carry 378 passengers and will be built with aluminum bodies.  They’ll be capable of speeds of 220 mph but will probably never achieve those rates.  Given the old roadbed and signal system, they’ll probably max out at 160 mph on the small portion of track that can handle it.  Think of a Ferrari trying to drive on a potholed I-95.

So while they’ll be no faster than the existing Acelas, they may be more comfortable. Using an active tilting system they’ll be able to go faster through the Northeast’s many curves, without tossing passengers or their drinks into the aisle.

Each of the 28 trainsets will have engines at each end pulling and pushing nine passenger cars.  If ridership remains strong, three additional articulated coaches can be added to each trainset.

The seating will be Business and First Class (Coach is only for the slower and cheaper Northeast Corridor trains).  Each plush leather seating row will have power and USB plugs.  The Café Car will be snazzier, too.

The initial trainsets are being built now at Alstom’s plant in Hormel NY.  Testing should start this fall at the FRA’s test track in Pueblo CO and, if all goes well, on the Northeast Corridor itself by December.

Assuming no problems, the new Acelas should enter commercial service in 2021 with all 28 sets delivered by 2022, at which point Amtrak will retire the original models.

Mind you, these new cars are not cheap:  about $2 billion for the 28 trains, making them Amtrak’s most expensive purchase ever.  Each train will cost about double what its European counterparts do because of FRA requirements for crash-worthiness:  the engines are built like a tank to sustain any impact in a crash.

So hang in there rail fans.  Something new is coming from Amtrak to a train line near you!

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.

October 04, 2019

"Getting There" - Commuting Can Make You Sick

It shouldn’t come as much surprise to learn that commuting, especially by car, is hazardous to your health.

Research now shows that the longer your drive, the greater the risk of obesity, heart attacks and even low birth-weight babies for moms-to-be.  At fault are a number of factors:

STRESS:      Being stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic increases your cortisol and adrenaline levels, increasing your risk of a heart attack during your drive and for an hour after. Getting angry when someone cuts you off only makes things worse.  Increased blood pressure also leads to lack of sleep, leaving you tired even as you leave the house each morning.

OBESITY:     The longer your commute, by car or mass transit, the more sedentary your life and the less exercise you get.  Couple that commute with fast food (and its sugar, salt and fat) and you’re at even greater risk.

BACK & NECK PAIN:        A 2010 Gallup poll shows that a third of all people who commute more than 90 minutes a day complain of pain due to poor posture and uncomfortable seating.

POLLUTION:     The longer you’re stuck in traffic the more bad air you breathe. A 2007 study of Los Angeles residents showed that half of their exposure to harmful air happened during their drive time.

LOW BIRTH-WEIGHT:      Researchers at Lehigh University, studied New Jersey birth records. They found that for pregnant women commuting 50 miles each day, there was a 1% increase in the chance of having a low birth-weight baby for every ten miles they traveled. Not only was “chronic maternal stress” a factor, but so too were missed doctor visits due to lack of free time.

The average commute time for Connecticut residents is 26 minutes each way, and climbing.  For Fairfield County residents going to jobs in New York City, it’s more than an hour.  And as traffic worsens and trains run slower, those commute times are climbing.

For those who bike or walk to work, the risks are lessened, but not eliminated.  The physical exertion is better for your heart, but bikers and pedestrians are still prone to collisions and accidents en route.

Just 20 years ago up to 70% of kids walked to school.  Now it’s only about 20% as the others take the school bus or are driven by Mom.  We’re turning our kids into local commuters at a very young age.

What can you do if you must commute long distances?  Plenty:

Try not to get stressed out while driving.  Leave a bit earlier than usual so you’re not grinding your teeth fearing you’ll be late.  Listen to books on tape, podcasts or something fun… not the news, which will only contributes to anxiety.  Try varying your route.  A change of scenery will keep you engaged.

On mass transit, don’t isolate yourself.  Socialize by talking to your fellow commuters (but not in The Quiet Car!)

In your automobile, keep the windows up and the air recirculating to avoid auto exhausts.  Make up for the sedentary (though stressful) drive by taking a walk at lunch.

Acknowledge the lack of control in your commute when traffic or train delays happen.  Just know that you’re doing the best you can with the things you can control… that you’re going to get there eventually and most of all that you’re trying to get their safely.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

September 27, 2019

"Getting There" - U-Pass Helps "Train" CT College Students

Imagine having an unlimited-rides pass on all public transit in Connecticut, including Metro-North.  Then imagine this pass only cost you $20 a year.

Such is the reality of U-Pass, the transit pass given to almost 15,000 community college and state university students in our state.  Not only does U-Pass give them affordable access to mass transit, in some cases the pass is a life changer.

“If I didn’t have U-Pass I wouldn’t be able to go to school,” says 21 year old part-time student Sabrina from Stratford.  Sabrina relies on her U-Pass to get her to classes at Norwalk Community College where she’s studying early childhood education.

The daughter of a single mom who doesn’t own a car (and also relies on the bus), Sabrina takes a bus, a train and another bus for her 90 minute one-way commute.  She also uses the pass to run personal errands like doctor’s appointments, which is fine with the CDOT and transit operators who devised the U-Pass.

Some students use their U-Pass on the CTFastrak busway system, journeying from campus to downtown to party.  Better they be on a bus than on the highway if they’ve had a couple of beers, no?

Created in 2017 as a brainchild of then CDOT Commissioner Jim Redeker, U-Pass costs every student at enrolled schools $20 a year, whether they use the pass or not, though 26% of all students do.  Many are first-generation college students coming from homes like Sabrina’s, which rely on public transportation.

U-Pass sales bring CDOT and the transit operators $800,000 a year, far less than the individual rides would cost a la carte.

“U-Pass is a great way of introducing public transportation to the next generation,” says CDOT’s Lisa Rivers.  And the response has been phenomenal, enjoying a 47% increase in usage in its second year of operation.

Students just flash their U-Pass and college ID, and they’re on their way.  This fall the U-Pass is being redesigned to show the student’s name and school, making the check of that student ID even easier.

U-Pass is honored not only on the bus but the trains, including Metro-North, but only within the state.  “If you travel beyond Greenwich to New York City, you pay the local fare,” says Rivers.

Students can also use U-Pass on Shore Line East from New Haven to New London and on the new CTrail Hartford Line trains from New Haven to Hartford.  That’s how 20 year old Daniel Pinto from UConn got to his summer job in New Haven where he was applying his civil engineering studies toward a career.  (PS:  He says he plans to keep living in Connecticut.)

But the Hartford Line trains, jointly operated by CDOT and Amtrak, have been having problems with U-Pass riders.  Though both CDOT and Amtrak tickets can be used on either Amtrak or CTRail trains, Amtrak has been refusing service to U-Pass holders on busy afternoon trains due to a lack of seats.  In some cases, U-Pass holders have been kicked off the train so their seats could go to Amtrak riders with reservations.

That’s not supposed to happen and it really speaks to how little Amtrak cares about this line or the service they provide.  Their trains have fewer cars than the CTrail trains, the conductors aren’t properly trained and when CDOT complains, Amtrak basically doesn’t listen.

Some have suggested that the U-Pass program be extended to state workers, though Rivers points out that, unlike struggling college students who must often choose between eating and going to school, the state employees get a paycheck… and free parking.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

September 16, 2019

"Getting There" - Some Ideas for Gov Lamont on Fixing Transportation

How’s your commute going?  Traffic getting worse?  Trains still running late?  As we all get back to work after the summer, commuters’ frustration level is rising as it seems nothing is being done to fix transportation.

Lawmakers in Hartford couldn’t be persuaded to meet to debate tolling this summer, knowing full well the votes weren’t there, so they just kicked back.  But it seems that some on the Governor’s staff were busy this summer trying to “reboot” his transportation plans.  It’s to be billed as “CT 2030”.

May I be so bold as to offer a few suggestions to the Governor’s team?

BE HONEST WITH US:     Admit that Governor Lamont created this transportation crisis by reneging on a legislative plan to put $170 million in auto taxes into the Special Transportation Fund.  By law, that didn’t violate the STF Lock Box rule but it sure did so in spirit.  Lamont should admit that was a mistake.

We also need a full accounting of CDOT spending and waste.  And an explanation of why CT does so poorly on national rankings when it comes to the cost of maintaining our roads.  Scandals like the CT Port Authority & Lottery don’t instill a lot of confidence for taxpayers.

PRIORITIZE:          Rather than beating the dead horse of tolls, let’s do an accounting of what needs to be fixed.  When Governor Malloy rolled out his $100 billion, 30-year “Let’s Go CT” scheme he refused to prioritize.  “We need to do it all, now,” he would say.  So naïve.
Surely the CDOT has a list of what needs fixing first.  Let’s see it.

SAFETY FIRST:      Whether roads or rails, safety must be the top priority.  Who can argue with the need to replace a rusting bridge, corroding catenary or enforcing speed limits?  Safety isn’t shiny or sexy.  It just saves lives, even if it’s often invisible to commuters.
Stop dangling unachievable goals like “30-30-30” or one lawmaker’s fascination with Hyperloop in front of us to distract us.  Just focus on state of good repair. Get the trains running on time, the interstate truck inspection stations open, the speed limits enforced and prevent the bridges from collapsing.

THEN WE CAN TALK ABOUT MONEY:           Once we all understand what needs to be done, with a list of priorities based on urgency and safety, then we can discuss funding.  Tolls are just one option.  If you’re not a fan, fine… but you’re not going to like the alternatives:  sales / income / gas taxes, fees, fare hikes or service cuts.  There’s no “free lunch”, folks.  Decades of delayed repairs will require billions of dollars and we’re all going to pay.

STOP THE “NO TOLLS” BULLIES:        The anti-toll forces, both grassroots and lawmakers, have seemingly pounded a stake through the heart of user-fee options to pay for transportation.  They’re tapped into the rich vein of Nutmeggers’ cynicism and distrust of Hartford.  But now they’re going a step further, threatening anyone running for public office with an organized campaign of opposition if they support tolling… “Vote for tolls. Lose at the polls.”

I can see promising a State lawmaker a hard time if they vote for tolls, but implying similar threats in local municipal races seems unfair.  Why should a First Selectman or Board of Reps candidate, who doesn’t even have a vote on tolling, be held to these bullies’ litmus test for loyalty?

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

"Getting There" - Commuting in the Good Ol' Days

Commuting is nothing new to Nutmeggers. But to appreciate our current challenges in “getting there”, consider what it was like centuries ago.
As early as 1699 roads had been laid out on routes still used today.  But where today those roads are now lined with trees, in the mid-1700’s those trees were gone as most of southern Fairfield county had been cleared to allow for farming. 
In the 1770’s the maintenance of Country Road (now known as The Boston Post Road) was the responsibility of the locals.  Every able bodied man and beast could be drafted for two days each year to keep the roads in good shape.  But traffic then consisted mostly of farm carts, horses and pedestrians. 
At the end of the 18th century it was clear that Connecticut needed more roads and the state authorized more than a hundred privately-funded toll roads to be built. Yes, friends… toll roads are part of our DNA.
 The deal was that, after building the road and charging tolls, once investors had recouped their costs plus 12% annual interest, the roads were revert to state control.  Of the 121 toll-road franchises authorized by the legislature, not one met that goal.
One of the first such toll roads was the original Connecticut Turnpike, now Route 1,  the Boston Post Road.  Another was the Norwalk to Danbury ‘pike, now Route 7.
On the Post Road four toll gates were erected:  Greenwich, Stamford, the Saugatuck River Bridge and Fairfield.  No tolls were collected for those going to church, militia muster or farmers going to the mills.  Everyone else paid 15 cents at each toll barrier, about $4 in today’s money!
The locals quickly found roads to bypass the tolls which were nicknamed “shun-pikes”.  Sound familiar?
Regular horse-drawn coaches carried passengers from Boston to NY.  And three days a week there was a coach from coastal towns to Stamford, connecting to a steamboat to New York.
The last tolls were collected in 1854, shortly after the New York & New Haven Railroad started service.  An early timetable showed three trains a day from Stamford to NYC, each averaging two hours and ten minutes.  Today Metro-North makes the run in just under an hour.
The one way fare was 70 cents vs. today’s $15.25 at rush hour.
In the 1890’s the one-track railroad was replaced with four tracks, above grade, thereby eliminating street crossings.
In the 1890’s the trolleys arrived.  The Stamford Street Railroad ran up the Post Road connecting with the Norwalk Tramway; the latter also offered open-air excursion cars to the Roton Point amusement park in the summer.
Riders could catch a trolley every 40 minutes for a nickel a ride.  There were so many trolley lines in the state that it was said you could go all the way from New York to Boston, connecting from line to line, for just five cents apiece.
The trolleys were replaced by buses in 1933.
Fast forward to the present where we are still debating tolls on our roads, possible trolley service in Stamford and T.O.D. (“transit oriented development”) is all the rage.  Have things really changed that much over two hundred years?

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

August 30, 2019

"Getting There" - Metro-North's Ambassador

Anthony Scasino is an ambassador, not for a foreign country, but for Metro-North.  He doesn’t have a consulate or embassy, just the Stamford Railroad station as his headquarters.

Scasino is one of six Customer Service Ambassadors (CSA) who work at the railroad’s busiest stations… White Plains, Harlem – 125th St, Fordham, New Rochelle, Croton-Harmon and Stamford.  Having passed muster during a six month trial, the program is now permanent and may be expanded.

Scasino has worked for Metro-North for six and a half years, having previously been a ticket agent at Stamford. Now he dons a bright blue and yellow vest emblazoned with “Customer Service” on the back and helps customers in the main concourse and on the platforms.

“I really like helping people,” he says.  “I hold doors open, give people directions… anything they need help with, even their luggage.”

When Scasino starts his shift at 6 am the station is already busy with commuters heading into the city.  Though some have recently complained about the homeless camping out overnight in the waiting area, Scasino says he leaves that issue to the security team and a social services agency, BRC, which is hired by the MTA to get the homeless off the benches and into appropriate shelters.  But a recent report by the Office of the NY State Comptroller says the $14 million spent by MTA on homeless outreach has been a failure.

Unlike Grand Central Terminal which closes each night from 2 to 5:30 am, the Stamford station remains open 24 hours for cleaning and the few passengers catching Amtrak’s overnight trains.

Scasino sees a lot of regular commuters each morning who say hello on their way to the tracks. In one case he actually saved a blind woman on an escalator from a nasty fall.

At some hours there is a lot of crowding on the Stamford platforms as trains arrive, unloading passengers while others wait to board, but Scasino says he’s never seen a problem he thought would prove dangerous.  “Commuters are pretty sharp,” he says.  “They know to stay back from the platform edge.  That’s why we have that yellow warning strip.”

And they know exactly where to position themselves on the platform to be near the train’s door when it opens, giving them quick access to limited seating.

One of the reasons Stamford station needs a CSA is that the station is so confusing and still lacks adequate signage.   For example, there is no local map posted in the station where people can see the station in relation to downtown and how to get there.

Years ago, when Swiss Bank was still active in town I remember seeing nattily dressed businessmen arrive on trains from New York and make their way to the taxi stand.  On entering the cab they’d say ‘Swiss Bank please’ and off they’d go for 2 blocks and about a $10 fare even while the bank’s headquarters were just 250 yards from the station.

Arrive by train at the smallest village in Europe and there’s always a map in the station to guide you.  But not in Stamford.  Still, that isn’t Metro-North’s fault but CDOT’s which owns and runs the station.

Right now Scasino only works a morning shift, but there may be plans to expand the Ambassadors’ coverage to afternoon rush hours and even weekends.  Clearly, the railroad is working hard to improve its image and the service they provide, especially to new riders and visitors.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

"Getting There" - America's First Transcons

How does this sound:  fly coast-to-coast in just 48 hours for only $5200?

That was the pitch for the first commercial, transcon air service in 1929 operated by TAT, Transcontinental Air Transport, much later to become TWA.  Founded by aviation pioneer Clement Melville Keys, the firm worked with Charles Lindbergh to also secure lucrative mail contracts.  But these flights were a first for passengers.

TAT was mocked as “take a train” because their service combined rail and air service to make it from New York to Los Angeles.

Passengers first boarded an overnight train at 6:05 pm from NY’s Penn Station, “the Airways Special”.  This first leg of the journey was to avoid flying over the Allegheny Mountains, known to air mail pilots as “Hells Stretch” due to the winds.

After an overnight journey in their luxury Pullman cars the train arrived at a special rail station at Port Columbus, Ohio’s airport, where they boarded a Ford Tri-Motor.  The small plane had a pilot, co-pilot, steward (always a man) and seated eight or nine passengers. 

The plan flew at 2,500 feet at about 100 mph…. straight through the clouds and rainstorms.

After two hours’ flight the plane made its first (of many) refueling stops in Indianapolis. Sandwiches were brought on board for the next hop, three hours away, in Kansas City.  Then Wichita and finally Waynoka OK.  There the passengers boarded a special TAT bus and were taken to the train station for their second overnight rail journey.  But first came dinner at a purpose-built Harvey House restaurant.

By morning the train arrived in Clovis NM where the passengers were again bused to the nearest airport, Portair NM, where they had breakfast before boarding another plane to continue on to Albuquerque, Winslow and Kingman AZ.  Over the western mountain ranges the Tri-Motor sometimes climbed as high as 8000 feet.

As the cabin was not pressurized, this brought about a lot of ear-popping and teeth chattering as a small onboard heater kept the cabin at no better than about 60 degrees. To treat air sickness caused by the turbulence, stewards passed out slices of lemon.

Finally, at about 6 pm Pacific time, more than 48 hours after leaving New York, these aviation pioneers arrived in Los Angeles.  The one-way fare was $352 (equal to $5200 in today’s dollars), and that was for the cheapest Pullman train accommodation, a lower berth.

Direct train service coast-to-coast in 1930 took three days, so the time savings by air was hard to justify when TAT tickets cost 50% more than luxurious Pullmans by rail.

In its first 18 months in operation, the TAT transcons lost $2.7 million ($41 million in 2019 dollars).  It didn’t help that, to maintain the prestige of flying TAT, each passenger was given a solid gold fountain pen from Tiffany’s.

Then came the stock market crash of 1929.  And on September 3, 1929, a literal crash, as a TAT plane collided with a New Mexico mountain killing all eight on board.  This was the first fatal crash of a commercial airplane, but just the first of three serious accidents in the next five months for TAT.

Today you can fly non-stop from New York to LA in six hours for less than $200 one-way.  You’ll cruise in comfort in a pressurized cabin at 35,000 feet, watch a movie and surf the web… and you might even get a meal.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

August 17, 2019

"Getting There" - The Train Ride From Hell

It was the railroad trip from hell:  the hottest day of the year, stuck for five hours on a sold out Amtrak train where only half the cars had air conditioning.

The ride to Washington days earlier had been uneventful, almost on time and pleasantly cool, even though I’d made the mistake of taking a Northeast Corridor train, not Acela.  Its older Amfleet cars, though recently refurbished on the inside, are still fifty years old.

But coming back from Washington on a torrid Sunday, by cheaping out for the slower, less expensive train I got what I’d paid for.  Put another way, I didn’t get what I’d paid for.

Already a half-hour late arriving in Washington from Newport News VA, train #88 arrived on one of DC’s low-level platforms, meaning boarding passengers had to cue up for about 30 minutes before even being allowed on the platform to board.

One of the station agents said that “extra cars” had been added in Washington, so I immediately headed to the front of the train where I assumed the new cars would be empty.  It was already 98 degrees in DC, heading for a “feels like” high that day of 110, so I was looking forward to the super-AC Amtrak is known for.

No such luck, as even the newly added cars were only slightly cooler than outside.  That’ll improve when we get going, I thought.  Wrong!

By Baltimore it was getting hot and the fan system was intermittent.  Pleas for help to the conductors brought nothing more than promises that “they’ll try to reset the system in Philly”, another hour away.

In desperation I turned to social media, Tweeting sarcastically about Amtrak’s new “Sauna Cars”.  Direct messaging to @Amtrak brought no response.

The train was getting later and later on its schedule, partly because of the heat’s adverse effect on the power lines and potential warping of the rails. Knowing there’d be a lot of passengers getting off and on in Philly, I plotted my move to one of the few cars with breathable air.  Success… a cooler, though not cold, car with seats.

At Philadelphia, nothing changed, though we did learn that five of the ten cars on this train bound for Boston carrying 700+ passengers were without air conditioning.

The DC conductor crew never apologized, though they did offer small, free bottles of water, which quickly ran out. But when a new set of conductors boarded in New York, the tone changed significantly.

“We apologize folks.  This is not the kind of service we want to provide or you deserve.  Please call 1-800-USA-RAIL and register a complaint.  If the cars don’t reset after New York, we’ll try again at New Haven,” said one conductor on the PA system.

We got off in Stamford, arriving 90 minutes late, so I don’t know if the cars ever did get cooler during the next four hours run to Boston.

The next day I called Amtrak Customer Service.  A 20+ year veteran agent commiserated, empathized and got me a refund voucher.

“Those old Amfleet cars shouldn’t be refurbished, they should be retired,” she said.  “Their air conditioning is either on or off.  There’s no moderating the temperature.  Next time you should take Acela,” she added. 

Never mind that Acela costs twice as much.  Its AC works and it’s mostly on time! I’ve learned from my mistakes.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

August 11, 2019

"Getting There" - Air Quality & Transportation

Do you know how bad Connecticut’s air quality is?  According to the American Lung Association, all of our state’s counties got a grade of “F” when it comes to ozone.

On hot, summer days the sun’s rays combine with auto, truck and power plant exhausts to create an invisible blanket of ozone over our state.  When it combines with fine particulate matter it turns into a grayish haze, making breathing difficult.

Sure, we can blame states to our west whose pollution blows our way, including those “clean coal” meccas of West Virginia and Ohio.  But before we point fingers, maybe we should consider what we are doing ourselves to worsen the problem.

Think of this next time you’re in bumper-to-bumper traffic on I-95 or the parkways.  Metro-North mostly runs its trains on electricity, but its diesels are downright filthy as are local buses, though many fleets are converting to natural gas or electric operation.

Even shipping by water contributes to pollution, though you hardly think about it as you’re breathing in the brisk air of Long Island Sound.  So it was great to read recently that Connecticut will soon have its first “hybrid” cross-Sound cargo vessel, “Harbor Harvest”, named after the natural food store and café in Norwalk.

The 65-foot, aluminum catamaran will carry everything from fresh produce to craft-brewed beer back and forth between Connecticut and Long Island.  The $2.8 million dollar vessel will charge its batteries using shore power for the 45 minute crossing.  Its owners estimate their cargo will take one or two trucks off of I-95 by cutting the travel time in half.

Mind you, the project wouldn’t even be possible were it not for a $1.8 million federal grant which the owners hope will keep them running for a couple of years.  Then we’ll see if it’s economically viable.  One shipping veteran on the coast tells me that’s “possible but not probable.”

Not that one little boat, displacing two trucks a day, is going to make our air breathable again.  But it’s a start.

Meanwhile in California, the shipping industry is “going green” on a massive scale.  The twin ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles are the two busiest ports in the US, handling 400 ships a year. 

To reduce pollution, the ports introduced a speed limit of 12 knots for ships as far as 40 miles from the docks.  Those vessels used to constantly keep at least a generator running to power the vessel in port but now they too are “plugging in” when they tie-up to unload containers and freight.

Here’s an astounding statistic:  Allowing just one container ship to use shore-power for a single day is the pollution-reducing equivalent of taking 33,000 cars off the road for that day.  That’s a major impact on air quality.  But it’s only the beginning of the needed “greening” of this transportation hub.

Containers offloaded from the vessels will soon be moved around the port on electric trucks, then mounted on railcars and carried away by fuel-efficient (but still very dirty) diesel-pulled trains and 16,000 long-distance (equally dirty) trucks.  So there’s still much to be done.
We worry so much about traffic and getting where we must, quickly and safely.  Maybe we should also think about how our transportation choices effects on our health.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

August 02, 2019

"Getting There" - The Merritt Parkway Conservancy

Former Governor Malloy used to joke that southwest Connecticut has two highways, “One’s a parking lot and the other’s a museum”.  He was obviously referring to I-95 and the Merritt Parkway.  I agree with his first characterization but he’s wrong about the second.
The Merritt Parkway is not a museum but a transportation gem… a unique, historic highway we should preserve and cherish.
Sure, the traffic on the Merritt can be brutal, not because of its design but because of the sheer volume of traffic: up to 90,000 vehicles a day.  Widening the Parkway wouldn’t help, though it’s been suggested in the past.
Designed and built in the 1930’s as an alternative to The Boston Post Road (before there was an I-95), the Merritt Parkway was the first to incorporate cloverleafs for on and off-ramps.  Its 72 unique bridges, landscape and roadways are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the Parkway itself is designated as a National Scenic Byway.
Preserving the look and historic feel of the Parkway over the past 81 years has not been easy.
Initially designed by the Merritt Highway Commission, once opened the parkway was controlled by the Merritt Parkway Commission until 1959 when that body was dissolved and care of the parkway was assumed by the Department of Transportation.
Efforts to expand interchanges at Routes 7, 8 and 25 saw community opposition and in 1973 the “Save the Merritt Association” fought back, at first successfully.  By 1976 a Merritt Parkway Advisory Committee was formed and still meets to this date.
The battle to stop freeway-like fly-overs to Routes 8 and 25 was lost, but efforts to prevent similar construction at the Route 7 interchange continues today, led  by The Merritt Parkway Conservancy.
The Conservancy was created at the suggestion of out-going CDOT Commissioner Emil Frankel who became its first Chairman in 2002. Its mission:  “to protect, preserve and enhance this historic roadway through education, advocacy and partnership ”.  Working alongside groups like the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, the American Society of Landscape Architects and the Southwest Regional Planning Association (now West COG), the Conservancy has been a tireless advocate for preserving the Parkway’s past for the future.
Conservancy Executive Director Wes Haynes drives the length of the Parkway every week looking for problems, then meets with CDOT to address them. Thanks to the Conservancy invasive species of plants are being mitigated, installation of appropriate wooden and steel guardrails is being monitored, and historic bridges (like the Lake Avenue bridge in Greenwich) are being rehabilitated.
Fortunately, there are still some old-timers at CDOT who embrace the Parkway’s unique design and work collaboratively to preserve its look.  But the pressures to turn the Merritt into another interstate persist, which is why the Conservancy needs everyone’s help.
If the Conservancy didn’t exist, who would speak  up to preserve this bucolic, lovely highway so integral to the communities through which it runs?
The Conservancy’s Board of Directors  includes two architects, a forestry expert, preservationists, law enforcement, an artist and representatives from business.  (Full disclosure:  I too am a member of the Board).  As a private non-profit organization entirely supported by members, the Conservancy welcomes new Board members who share its preservation mission and bring new ties to local communities, governments and civic organizations.  If you would like to join in the Conservancy’s work or nominate a candidate for the Board, visit the Conservancy’s website