November 25, 2022

A NEW COMMISSIONER AT CDOT

 

The Connecticut Department of Transportation (CDOT) is getting a new Commissioner. After four years on the job, Joe Giulietti is retiring.


Giulietti has spent more than 50 years in transportation, starting as a brakeman and conductor on the old Penn Central RR while still a student at Southern CT State University.  He graduated to road foreman and then assistant manager for operating rules before joining the new Metro-North in 1983 as superintendent of transportation.

In 1998 he pulled up stakes and moved to Florida where, for 14 years, he ran the Tri-Rail commuter rail system.  Then Metro-North called him back to become President of the railroad from 2014 to 2017, when he retired after a health scare.

As he likes to tell the story, Giulietti got a cold call in 2018 from newly elected Governor Ned Lamont, beckoning him out of retirement (again) to become CDOT Commissioner, his “job of a lifetime”.

Joe G accomplished a lot in his tenure, delivering projects on-time and on-budget while being constantly pushed by his boss to speed up rail service to fulfill Lamont’s pipedream of “30-30-30” service.  The Commissioner also took one for the team, serving as front-man for Lamont’s unpopular tolls initiative, long since abandoned.

Insiders tell me Giulietti is heading south again to warmer climes, but I’m guessing he may resurface in some consulting role.  He knows too much to just sit on a beach.

The 70-year-old Giulietti’s successor is Garrett Eucalitto, his former Deputy Commissioner, a self-described “policy nerd”, not a railroad or highways guy.  Eucalitto, who’s in his 40’s, may be the perfect guy for the job because the challenge at CDOT has changed.

The task now is finding the money and the talent to execute on long-planned transportation improvements.  While Connecticut is getting $5.38 billion in federal funding, the new Commissioner has to match those funds with state money and compete with other states for $100 billion in additional funding for specific projects.

Eucalitto knows funding like Giulietti knew railroad switches.  The new Commissioner spent time at OPM, the state’s Office of Planning and Management, which controls the budget purse strings.  And he worked for the National Governor’s Association, turning transportation wishes into funding realities.

But finding the money is only half the battle that Eucalitto will face.  He also needs to find talent to execute on the plans.  After years of attrition under the Malloy administration, CDOT still has 700 unfilled jobs.

Eucalitto says the agency is attending jobs fairs and scouring the region for engineers.  The CDOT is even having trouble hiring truck drivers, competing as it must with the private sector.

Eucalitto inherits an agency with a strong direction and good momentum.  The all-important Special Transportation Fund (STF) which subsidizes these projects is coming back from life-support, the current “gas tax holiday” notwithstanding.

Asked if tolls were back on the table as a funding source for the STF, Eucalitto said “No… but…”.  In 20 years when we’re all driving electric vehicles, a tax on petroleum products to pay for transportation will be an odd footnote in history.

November 17, 2022

AMTRAK'S STRUGGLES

This week will be the busiest of the year for Amtrak as hundreds of thousands of Americans depend on the nation’s passenger railroad to get them to and from their Thanksgiving plans.

If you don’t have train reservations by now, good luck.  Every seat on every train will probably be taken, especially in the heavily traveled Northeast corridor and the New Haven to Springfield (and points north) service.  You should anticipate delays and maybe even standing-room-only conditions. (By the way… only folding bicycles are allowed on Amtrak this holiday week.)


The question is why.  Why can’t Amtrak add more cars to its trains to carry the extra loads, earn some badly needed revenue and help people make their holiday journey?  The answer:  bad management.

When COVID hit, Metro-North decided to not lay off engineers and conductors, a costly but prescient decision.  But when ridership returned, they were ready, adding trains and serving passengers.  Capacity wasn’t a problem and won’t be going forward.

Amtrak, on the other hand, contracted quickly despite receiving $3.7 billion from Congress to minimize disruptions.  Long distance trains, which once ran daily, were cut to three times a week.  Trains between Washington and Boston, including the money-making Acela, saw revenue drop 98%.

The railroad’s workforce was cut 20% with 500 veteran employees leaping at buyout offers, taking with them experience and institutional knowledge hard to replace.  That made it even more difficult to maintain Amtrak’s 40+ year-old railcars and 20-year-old locomotives, many of which are still “shopped”.

Meanwhile, Amtrak’s management was pocketing $2.3 million in bonuses in 2021 for cost reduction efforts.  Critics are now implying the bosses were slow to restore service to protect their own bonus checks, the riders be damned.

By the time COVID vaccines arrived and ridership demand returned, the damage was done. Long distance Superliner cars, diners and sleeping cars, are still awaiting repairs because Amtrak can’t find skilled workers or even would-be apprentices. The railroad is on a hiring blitz but they can’t compete with private industry.

One insider tells Trains Magazine Amtrak is seeing a 50% cancellation rate even for interviews.  And hiring, then training, an electrician to work on railcars built in the 1980’s is quite different than the skills those wiring-jockeys might use in building a new house.

Staff shortages for on-board personnel mean that CafĂ© Cars may not be in service or sleeping cars can’t be used, despite demand. That means fares will remain high. Like Uber, Amtrak operates on a “surge pricing” model:  the higher the demand, the higher the fares.  At last check, one-way from NY to Boston on the days before and after Thanksgiving was $309… in coach!


Train watchers in the Connecticut River Valley have seen ridership there soar in recent months.  But while CTRail (run by the CDOT) will be adding more trains (no reservations necessary) next week, Amtrak (which runs half of all trains), will not.  They just don’t have the cars.

EV ANXIETY

There’s no doubt that EVs (electric vehicles) are our future.  The question is, are we ready for them?

There are already over 25,000 EVs in Connecticut, almost half of that number in Fairfield County with Westport drivers owning the most.  They’re not cheap to buy ($30,000+ each) but cheaper to operate (for now).

Charging up a Tesla costs about $14 and can take you maybe 300 miles.  But that’s based on current electric rates.  But they’re going up, way up.

Eversource CEO Joe Nolan recently told investors he anticipates a 40% boost in electric rates next year, mostly due to the price of natural gas which is responsible for generating about 50% of our juice.  Nuclear generates another 30% with “renewables” (solar, trash burning, wood and wind) coming in at just 10%, but climbing.

Blame it on the Russians’ invasion of Ukraine, inflation or whatever.  Energy is going to be tighter and more expensive.  And remember:  Eversource only distributes the electricity, it doesn’t generate it, so don’t blame them.

All of this may mean a long, cold winter ahead for residential users who’ll be turning off lights, cranking down the thermostat and piling on the sweaters.  But nobody’s expecting a reduction in driving.  Just look at current traffic despite the high gasoline prices.

One of the big concerns of potential EV buyers is “range anxiety”:  can I get a charge if I’m away from my usual neighborhood?   That’s why Eversource is gearing up to install hundreds of new EV charging stations, both at home and work.

Eversource is offering incentives of up to $1000 to put in a Level 2 (220 volt) charging station in your home (which may cost you $650 - $700).  That charger will give you 12 - 80 miles of range per hour of charging… about four times faster than a standard 120 volt charger.

But that incentive comes with a catch:  the utility can throttle back your charging during hours of peak demand, say 4-6 pm on a hot summer day, to protect the grid.

Offices and retail locations can get $40K per property for Level 2 charger installations or up to $250K for Level 3, DC “Fast Chargers” (DCFC).  Those beasts can give a Tesla an 80% charge in about 40 minutes.  But they use an amazing amount of power… according to one charger company, the equivalent of five residential households for a week for a one hour charge! 


While residential users will pay standard electric rates, commercial chargers at offices, stores and such can make you pay whatever they want.  You’ll probably use an app to find the nearest charger which will show its rates.  Think “Gas Buddy” for EVs.

Who pays for these new EV chargers?  The rate payers (customers), not utility company shareholders.  Blame PURA, our state’s Public Utilities regulator.

The bigger question is … with 13% of all cars in Connecticut expected to be EVs by 2031, will there be enough electricity on the grid to charge all them all, let alone all the electric trucks, buses etc.?

The short answer is yes… given that most charging of EVs is done overnight and with the expectation that we’ll all be conserving electricity at home and work.  So turning off lights will mean there’s juice for your EV.


October 15, 2022

WHAT METRO-NORTH STILL GETS WRONG

Last week I wrote a column that drew a few raised eyebrows.  It was about what Metro-North gets right as a commuter railroad… reliability, improved communications and technology.

If I believe in giving credit where it’s due, I also believe in responsibly pointing out the areas where things can still be improved, such as…

TRAINS STILL TOO SLOW:       After the derailment in Bridgeport in 2013 the Federal Railroad Administration imposed slow orders for all trains on the New Haven mainline.  That has meant a much slower ride, especially for passengers farther to the east.  But since then positive train control (PTC) has been installed on all trains, so safety is all but guaranteed.  So why are trains running so slow?


In 1955 the old New Haven Railroad made the 36 mile sprint from Stamford to Grand Central in 48 minutes.  Today it takes almost an hour… far from Governor Lamont’s idyllic 30 minute dream.

MORE EXPRESS TRAINS:         Outside of rush hour, mainline trains still make too many stops… running local from New Haven to Stamford.  Sure, a handful of early morning express trains were added from New Haven making a few stops but overall the service is too slow.  Why isn’t the railroad running zoned service, making three or four stops and then running express?

THERE ARE TOO MANY BREAKDOWNS:      Hardly a day passes without my Twitter feed exploding about delays on the trains, usually related to mysterious “equipment issues”, a euphemism for a breakdown.  The newish M8 cars have been super reliable over the years.  What’s causing these mysterious “issues”?

MAKE “ON TIME” MEAN SOMETHING:         US railroads define “on time” as being within 5:59 of scheduled arrival time.  That’s a 10% margin of error on a one hour trip, making the railroad’s “on time performance” statistics meaningless.  Let’s make “on time” mean on time.


BRING BACK QUIET CARS:      The pandemic was the excuse the railroad used for halting the Quiet Cars, but that’s passed, right?  Bring back the Quiet Cars and enforce the rules.

KEEP THE FARES FAIR:           We have the highest commuter rail fares in the US but they’re still not covering the cost of operations.  NYC offers discount subway fares to low-income residents so why can’t Metro-North?  On the opposite extreme, fares on the branch lines and Shore Line East are far too low and should be raised, covering more of the operating costs.


ENFORCE THE RULES:   Why is it so hard to ask conductors to enforce the rules for things like the Quiet Car and (when it was in effect) mask wearing?  They have no trouble enforcing the ticket rules, so why not the others?  If conductors are only glorified ticket-takers, why not go to the “honor system”:  every passenger would be required to have a ticket and, if random inspectors find they don’t have one they’d get a $200 fine.  That could cut staffing and safe a lot of money.

Yes, Metro-North provides a good service overall.  But it could always be better.

October 07, 2022

WHAT METRO-NORTH DOES RIGHT

No, I don’t hate Metro-North.  Yes, I do spend a lot of time criticizing them, but only to try to make them better.

The railroad does have a lot of room for improvement… they botched the mask enforcement rules, have been slow to add more service and could really use some improvement in their on-board enforcement of the Quiet Car rules. But just so you know I’m not a complete grouch, let’s give the railroad credit for what they do right.

Overall, especially compared to some other US commuter railroads, Metro-North does a darned good job.

RELIABLE SERVICE:       The railroad deserves a lot of credit for improved service in bad weather.  Before the arrival of the new M8 cars, they’d regularly suspend operations in heavy snow, ‘lest trains get stranded when they broke down.  These days they’re almost a weatherproof railroad, keeping things moving in all but the worst blizzards.


They also kept service running at the start of the pandemic, running trains when most other transportation, offices and government shut down.  As a result, essential workers… nurses, cops, firefighters… could get to work to help others.  And they did that at great personal risk to their employees, seven of whom died of COVID.  Their sacrifice made it safer for others in our darkest hour and we should thank them.

BETTER COMMUNICATIONS:             In my 19 years serving on the CT Rail Commuter Council the biggest single complaint we always voiced was about a lack of communications when service was interrupted.  Trains would run late, or not at all, leaving passengers wondering what was happening.

Today you can get timely emails, texts and social media updates about such delays, their cause and what, if any, alternative service would be offered.  They have full-time people monitoring Twitter, posting updates and answering questions… truly a thankless job when facing a slew of angry riders.

On station platforms the PA announcements and electronic signs also provide timely information.  Commuters can forgive a lot of problems if they’re kept informed.  And now they are.

GRAND CENTRAL;          Grand Central Terminal is truly a magnificent station.  And the railroad’s parent, MTA, has done a lot to make it more than that.  There are restaurants, shops, bars and an iconic Apple store. 

Compare Grand Central to Penn Station and you’ll count yourself lucky to have such amenities which are well kept, clean and constantly being improved. 

In a few months the LIRR’s new station under Vanderbilt Avenue will open for service.  Years late and way, way over budget, it’s an important investment in the region’s transportation future.

TECHNOLOGY:     The railroad’s TrainTime app is a game changer.  You can not only check the timetable, and buy a ticket but also see how crowded your arriving train will be (so you can find a seat). The app gets downloaded 6000 times a day and is used by 90% of all passengers.  And to their credit, it was designed in-house by the MTA’s IT team.

So say what you will, Metro-North does a lot of stuff right.

October 02, 2022

SHORE LINE EAST... FARTHER EAST?

Imagine taking a train… a one-seat ride… all the way from Grand Central Terminal to the sandy shores of Mystic CT.  Or connecting there for a quick run up to the Indian casinos.

Such a thing should be possible and may yet happen… if Shore Line East gets its act together.


Shore Line East is the state-owned commuter line from New Haven to Old Saybrook opened in 1990 in anticipation of heavy traffic delays on I-95 during reconstruction of the Q Bridge.  Initially it was only rush-hour service… west to New Haven in the morning and back east in the evening.

But gradually service expanded with a couple of trains going as far as New London.  Service became two way and extended outside of rush hours.  Even weekend trains were added.

But the service has always operated at a loss, a huge loss compared to the main line of Metro-North.  Initially the per-passenger, per trip subsidy on Shore Line East was over $18.  Pre-COVID it had soared to almost $50.  Why so expensive?

For one, CDOT owns but doesn’t operate the trains.  That’s done under contract by Amtrak, which also owns the tracks east of New Haven.

But most of all, the huge fixed costs of running a railroad are spread over a much too small ridership.  While pre-COVID the main line of Metro-North would carry over three million passengers a month, Shore Line East might have 65,000.

Mind you, there are only 125,000 people living in all seven towns served my Shore Line East… Branford, Guilford, Madison, Clinton, Westbrook, Old Saybrook and New London.  Contrast that with mainline cities like Stamford (population 135,000), Bridgeport (148,000) and New Haven (134,000), the three largest cities in the state.

But which comes first, the chicken or the egg?

Did those “big three” cities grow so large because they had great train service… or did they get great train service because they were so big?

Advocates suggest that if more intermediate stations were added on Shore Line East, maybe East Haven, Old Lyme and Niantic, ridership would increase.  But what might help even more is extending Shore Line East as far east as Providence RI. 


That would also mean stops in Mystic, Stonington and Westerly RI, currently “fly over country” for most Amtrak service offering very infrequent stops.  Mystic, in particular, holds great promise as a tourist town just a quick ride from the casinos.

Service today on Shore Line East is still less than pre-COVID and operates on a hodgepodge timetable, hardly attractive to new riders.  But they do have those new (to them) all-electric M8 cars, replacing their slow and dirty old diesels, so some steps are in the right direction.

Kudos have to go to my friends on the CT Commuter Rail Council who have galvanized local residents and politicians pushing for better service.

But something must be done about the operating losses, initially by improving service which would justify raising fares which are much lower than on the mainline.  A railroad cannot operate viably with such losses without proving that it can attract more passengers.

 

September 23, 2022

CARMAGEDON & THE CAMPAIGN

What the heck is going on with our highways… and why is nobody talking about it?

Did you know that 20,000 Americans died on our roadways in the first half of this year… and that that number has been increasing since the pandemic?  Have you noticed how aggressive drivers have become in the past year?  Or how much speeding is going on, unchallenged?


Why is traffic getting so bad, all day long, on our interstates and parkways?  Rush hour starts about 5:30 am and, with the exception of a lunchtime break, runs the full day and into the evening?  From Bridgeport to Greenwich it almost looks like LA.

Why are all these vehicles on the road, especially the commuters?  Why aren’t they on the train?  How do they tolerate those bumper-to-bumper conditions, every day?  No wonder they’re filled with rage!


We’re deep into the fall campaign season, yet “transportation” doesn’t seem to be getting much attention, at least not as much as in years past, despite this worsening situation.

Sure, Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Stefanowski delights in teasing incumbent Ned Lamont about his flip-flopping on tolls.  But remember, Stefanowski’s campaign manager is Patrick Sasser, creator of the hugely successful “No Tolls CT” grassroots group.  (I wonder who wrote that campaign webpage.)

But aside from those taunts, Stefanowski only makes one campaign promise about transportation:  that he’ll work to make sure every dollar in the Special Transportation Fund gets spent on transportation, not pensions.  Fair enough.  But there’s nothing on his website about our trains, our highways… no vision.

Contrast that with Ned Lamont who has been playing Santa Claus with federal grant dollars and, though unachievable, has been pushing his 30-30-30 dream of much, much faster trains on Metro-North.  Ambitious goal setting, if unachievable.

But where’s the discussion of our under-staffed, under-funded State Police?  Or the problems they and many PDs have had in hiring new recruits.  It’s almost a daily occurrence that people are shot on the street in our cities, often in broad daylight.  There was even a shooting near the capitol in Hartford.

If laws don’t get enforced and calls continue about “defunding the police”, are we really surprised that road rage grows exponentially, unchallenged?

Even Metro-North is beefing up a police presence, assigning MTA PD cops to ride our trains for the first time in my memory.  They didn’t send their officers to enforce the mask mandate during the pandemic, but now they can “show the colors” and at least make commuters feel safe as they return to commuting in record numbers.

I’m no knee-jerk “law and order” reactionary, but something must be done to restore civility and law enforcement to our roads and rails, for everyone’s sake.  Pedestrian deaths, highway fatalities and street shootings are just not acceptable and I hope every candidate this fall is challenged by you, the voters, to address these important issues.

A NEW COMMISSIONER AT CDOT

  The Connecticut Department of Transportation (CDOT) is getting a new Commissioner. After four years on the job, Joe Giulietti is retiring....