May 12, 2022

WHY IS THERE STILL NO WI-FI ON METRO-NORTH?

 

Airplanes have Wi-Fi.  Even Connecticut’s  CTfastrak commuter bus system from New Britain to Hartford gives its passengers free Wi-Fi.   Commuter railroads across the US offer Wi-Fi, including Boston's MBTA. Wi-Fi is everywhere… but not on Metro-North.  So the Connecticut legislature has just budgeted $23 million to install 5G technology on the railroad’s M8 cars.  Are they too late?  Is it even needed?

 

Offering Wi-Fi on a moving vehicle usually involves cellular technology, not satellites (like in planes).  In 2010 Amtrak first offered Wi-Fi on its Acela trains between Washington and Boston and they immediately had bandwidth issues.  So many passengers were using their cell phones and tablets, speeds dropped to 0.6 mb per second and the complaints came pouring in.

That’s part of the reason that Metro-North has always been reluctant to offer Wi-Fi:  if an Acela train carrying 300 passengers can’t handle the online load, how could a ten-car train carrying a thousand commuters?  The railroad has enough complaints as it is just trying to run the trains, right?

Metro-North’s experience with on-board communications has left them feeling burned.  Veteran commuters will remember many years ago when the railroad installed cellular pay-phones on the trains.  Great idea, until a year later when cellphone costs came down and everyone had their own cell phone in their purse or pocket.  Those pay cell phone booths went unused and were eventually removed.

 

Back in 2006 then-President of MNRR Peter Cannito said Wi-Fi would be built into the new M8 cars, both for passengers and to allow the railcars to “talk” to HQ by beaming-in diagnostic reports.   The railroad issued an RFP for ideas and got a number of responses, including from Cablevision, with whom they negotiated for many months.  They even initiated on-train testing of Wi-Fi gear on one railcar. Today if you check your phone’s settings, you’ll often see a mysterious Wi-Fi network signal following your route… but one you’ll never be able to access.

Back then Metro-North insisted any Wi-Fi would have to cost the railroad nothing: that all the expense and tech risk would be borne by Cablevision or its customers.  And that’s where the negotiations deadlocked.

In 2019 Governor Lamont promised improved trackside cell coverage “within a year” in a deal with AT&T.  But their coverage maps, as well as those for Verizon and T-Mobile, still show some gaps, especially in their long promised, super-fast 5G service.

The railroad still sees Wi-Fi as just a convenience, not a necessity.  Smart phones and cell-card configured laptops can access the internet just fine, they say, using cellular technology.  If there’s a cell signal along your route, you can get online without getting caught in Metro-North’s puny Wi-Fi.  Forty-three percent of Americans have unlimited data plans, so who needs Wi-Fi?  But commuters still complain about dead-spots, a problem Wi-Fi won’t fix.

 

Still, it is an election year and the state’s coffers are flush with cash, so why not throw $23 million into a soon-to-be-obsolete technology?  So watch for a signal, maybe even 5G, coming to your cellphone on a future commute… subsidized by Connecticut taxpayers.

April 30, 2022

LEGISLATIVE SCORECARD: HAVE A LOLLIPOP

As our Connecticut legislators wrap up their “short session” this week, it’s time to assess their work: things accomplished, mixed messages sent and issues left unresolved.

Transportation is responsible for almost 30% of all air pollution in the US, more than half of that spewed by cars and trucks.  The EPA cays Connecticut is in “severe non-compliance” with Federal clean air rules, especially Fairfield, New Haven and Middlesex counties.  Our air literally stinks.

So while I’m happy the state has finally committed to a Clean Air Act, it will take until 2040 for many of its provisions to take effect.  That’s far too long to keep endangering the health of our residents.

But while lawmakers do one right thing, albeit too slowly, they send a very different message in the short term.  As I predicted, they have continued a cut in the gasoline tax until December 1st, shortly after the November elections.  What a coincidence.

While commuters can save money by driving, bus riders and rail commuters are losing their discounts:  the free bus rides program will expire at the end of June.  Ridership on one busy transit system jumped 17% when the free-fare plan was launched, taking cars and their pollution off the road.

And if you mistakenly bought a peak ticket on Metro-North during the many months when only off-peak fares were required, good luck getting a refund.  Why did the railroad keep selling peak tickets during the pandemic?  They said they couldn’t reprogram their ticket machines.  Really.

As legislators congratulate themselves for cleaning up our state’s air (by 2040) they encourage further driving, worsening our air pollution, while discouraging use of mass transit. 

And, oh yeah, while you’re speeding down I-95 please let your passengers enjoy a beer.

Yes, Connecticut still can’t pass a law banning “open containers” in cars despite an increase in deadly accidents on our highways.  Why?  Because sports fans want to be able to tailgate at stadium events.

Pandering to that vocal minority has cost Connecticut $132 million in lost Federal aid over the last 20 years.  Apparently, Washington is smarter than we are and doesn’t want to subsidize stupidity.

What other weighty matters did lawmakers find time to address while delaying air quality and ignoring public safety?  Well, they voted to name the lollipop as our state’s official candy, answering a petition by third-graders from Fairfield.

Yep, that’s quite a civics lesson for the kids, wheezing from asthma as they enjoy their lollies.

Finally, a get-well greeting to Stamford mayor Caroline Simmons who, along with her husband, has come down with COVID.  She says she’s feeling well but I think she’s delirious.  In her pre-recorded State of the City address she said her team is studying the idea of a ferry service to New York City.

Madame Mayor:  As I have written since 2005, that idea has been “studied” over and over again and found wanting.  Why waste time and taxpayers’ money on a “fuelish” transportation plan long ago rejected by industry experts.

Please apply cold compresses to your fevered brow.  And have a lollipop.

 

 

April 25, 2022

NO... STATE WORKERS ARE NOT OVERPAID

 Are Connecticut state workers overpaid?  I don’t think so.

Connecticut state employees are about to get a retroactive, four-year contract that gives them a $3500 bonus, annual 2.5% pay increases and their “step increases” tied to seniority and their jobs.  By one estimate, this all works out to an additional $10,000 per worker over four years.

Total cost to taxpayers:  $1.86 billion.

Watching the legislature debate this package I had to chuckle.  Despite all the fuss and bluster, this now looks like a sweetheart deal compared to what would be negotiated in today’s era of hyper-inflation. Just 2.5%?  A bargain!

State employees, at least the 46,000 represented in this SEBAC contract, are clearly well paid, in some cases making more than their counterparts in the private sector.  Well paid, but not over paid.

Why?  Because state workers are still quitting in record numbers and their places are not getting filled.  It’s all about supply and demand.

Retirements from Hartford usually average about 2000 staffers a year.  This year it’s been 3400 so far with a flood of more retirements expected before July 1st when new rules take effect.

Where do these retirees go?  Trust me, they’re not sitting on a beach somewhere smoking Macanudos.  Most go to work as consultants in “the private sector”.

I still see my old friends from CDOT (from my almost 20 years on the Commuter Council) at meetings and events.  They’re still working in the transportation business but now they dress better and have nicer cars.  And, of course, they took their fat state pensions with them.

But how is that any different than the cop or the firefighter who pads his final year with overtime and does the same thing, transitioning into a security job or opening a deli?  

Are they anymore overpaid than the dot-com code-writer who jumps from job to job for better money and perks?  Or the investment banker who pulls down a good salary and still gets six figure annual bonuses?  Are they overpaid?

And if these cushy state jobs are so great, why can’t CDOT fill the 700 job openings it anticipates in the next few months?  Sure, they’re getting applications, but it isn’t an easy sell.

These are crucial jobs affecting life and death. These are the engineers who design, build and inspect our bridges… and the electricians, mechanics and snow plow drivers who keep roads open in blizzards.

And if Connecticut is to get its fair share of federal infrastructure spending it must have people and plans in place now to grab the green.  These will be exciting jobs at an historic moment of investment in our roads and rails, our electrical grid and water supply.

Fifty years ago I went to Lehigh University to become a civil engineer.  I wanted to build the high speed trains of the future.  Freshman calculus and chemistry persuaded me to change my major and I ended up in broadcasting and journalism.

But if I had it all to do over again, a job at CDOT right now would be pretty damn attractive.

April 17, 2022

METRO-NORTH'S HYPOCRISY UNMASKED

I love getting email, especially from frustrated Metro-North commuters. 

Consider this thoughtful email I received a week ago from a six-day a week rider, Stan Mikita who works on Broadway:

“I am actually on a train into work right now and Googled "Metro North conductor claims he can't enforce mask mandate" and your article from Sept 2021 popped up.

I take 12 train rides per week and have seen ridership increase since coming back to work in September 2021. I have also noticed that trains are often shorter than before and some conductors reluctant to open empty cars, even on busy, crowded trains. Just now, I asked the conductor if the mask mandate is still in effect (there is a couple sitting on the train, maskless) and he said yes, but that he "couldn't enforce it." I replied that he can certainly at least make the (mask rule) announcement again which he eventually did 15 minutes later.

I am so frustrated with MN's lack of consistency on these issues.

We have all had to pull together to try to get back to some sense of normal. And now my experience is that (anecdotally anyway), COVID is coming back and there are more cases. Certainly there are in my industry, anyway, where we MUST be unmasked to do our jobs, and yet as soon as we get off stage, the masks go right back on!  I cannot imagine a conductor letting a passenger ride for free (another policy..... that everyone must have a paid-ticket) and yet some are unwilling to enforce (or even encourage with mask hand-out) the mask policy.”

Stan is right to be upset.  Conductors on Metro-North do not enforce the mask rules, leaving that task to the MTA Police.  And as CTExaminer.com found in a FOIA complaint last year:  in the year after the mask rules went into effect, not a single citation had been issued in Connecticut by MTA police for non-compliance.  Not one.

Why? Because the MTA PD is virtually non-existent in our state.  The handful of their officers stationed here only drive around in patrol cars and never ride our trains. When’s the last time you ever saw an MTA PD officer?

When subway terrorist Frank James shot ten passengers on a crowded train in Brooklyn last week, Governor Lamont sent Connecticut State Troopers to “show the flag” at Stamford and New Haven hours later, not the MTA cops.

Sure, the MTA PD has bigger law enforcement problems to worry about than passengers refusing to wear a mask.  But COVID is back.  Cases are climbing, mask rules are being reinstated in some places and people are still dying or suffering from “long COVID” for months. 

These transportation mask rules are Federal, dictated by the TSA and are not optional.  MTA asks Washington for billions in rescue money but won’t enforce this safety rule?   Where are our Congressmen and Senators on this issue?

For commuters like Stan Mikita, this is a matter of public safety.  For Metro-North to encourage, no, almost plead for commuters to come back to their trains and then allow them an unsafe ride, is hypocrisy.

If you see something, say something!  E-mail me at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com

 

April 09, 2022

DE-ELECTRIFICATION OF THE DANBURY BRANCH

 

It was a huge mistake, one that commuters and planners have regretted for over sixty years.  For it was in 1959 that the last electric locomotive pulled a train on the Danbury branch.

Yes, that meandering 24 miles of single track railroad connecting South Norwalk and Danbury was once electrified. For 34 years, long before the invention of diesel locomotives, it saw electric trains running “under the wire”.

Why did that change?

Most rail historians, like former New Haven and Metro-North veteran Jack Swanberg blame one man:  Patrick B McGuiness, President of the New Haven.  “He was not a good railroad man,” said Swanberg, a master of understatement.  In his two years running the mighty, private and once profitable New Haven Railroad, McGuiness made terrible choices we’re still living with.

By the way, after leaving the New Haven he went on to ruin another railroad, the Boston & Maine, where he was indicted on charges of selling rail cars and pocketing the proceeds.

At the NH Railroad, predecessor to Metro-North, McGuiness cut maintenance and laid off staff, trying to goose up the stock price.  But it was when General Motors came calling that he made his biggest error.

The New Haven’s real profits came from running passengers and freight on the main line from NYC to Boston.  Because steam and diesel locomotives were not allowed in Grand Central, the New Haven was one of the first railroads to electrify, starting in 1909, eventually running all the way to New Haven.


But for trains running beyond New Haven they needed to change engines (from electric to steam and later diesel), an expensive and time consuming move. McGuiness thought he could avoid that expense when GM introduced its hybrid FL-9 loco, railroad’s Prius of its day, running all electric powered by third rail, then running diesel.

In the 1950’s the New Haven ordered sixty FL-9s from General Motors, replacing their classic but boxy looking EP-2 electrics built by General Electric.  By 1959 that meant no more electric service on the Danbury branch.  In 1965 they finally took down the copper catenary, selling it for scrap like some sort of junkie.

But the New Haven RR had problems:  it was facing a second bankruptcy as the passenger business was dwindling due to more cars on the newly opened I-95 and its freight business was hurting as well.

Plus, the FL-9s were not performing well. 

While the original EP electrics had 4000 hp, the hybrid FL-9s were less than half that.  And that meant poor acceleration and longer travel time, especially on commuter trains making a lot of stops.  Longer trains that used to have one electric loco now required two or three FL-9s.

The FL-9s were also expensive to maintain and dirty, even before we cared about air pollution.  And on the steep Danbury line where it’s a 360-ft climb from the coast to the Hat City, traction is a problem even today in the fall and winter.

In cold weather the diesels still have to be kept running all night, just idling in the yard (creating noise and air pollution).  Their 25 year life expectancy wasn’t impressive and overhauls were costly.

“It was a mistake to take down the wire (on the Danbury branch),” says Swanberg who has written extensively on the topic.   But electrics may be coming back on the branch.

After a stack of studies and plans calling for re-electrification, CDOT’s rail chief Rich Andreski says “we are serious this time”.  But rather than re-string the overhead wire, the solution may be a new hybrid rail car:  one that runs under the wire on the mainline and on batteries on the branch.

Influential (but lame duck) State Senator Will Haskell, Chairman of the Transportation Committee endorses the idea.  So fast, clean electric trains may yet return to the Danbury and other branches of Metro-North.

But only if we hadn’t made that mistake 63 years ago and taken down that wire.


Photo credits:  T.J. McNamara, Shoreliner Magazine, Wikimedia

April 03, 2022

SELF SERVE GAS IN NEW JERSEY? FUGETABOUTIT!

You can pump your own soft-serve ice cream at trendy yogurt shoppes.  But you still can’t pump your own gasoline in New Jersey. Why?    Once again, lawmakers in Trenton have killed an effort to save motorists money at the pump, allegedly in the name of safety.

 

Self-serve gasoline has been the rule nationwide for 73 years, ever since the first pump-your-own gas station opened in California in 1947.  Prior to that, all gas stations were full-service.  Not only did the “pump jockeys” fill your tank but they’d check your oil, water levels in your radiator and wash your windows… and maybe even give you a set of free steak knives for your 35-cent-a-gallon purchase.  Remember those good ol’ days?

 


When the self-serve idea came to New Jersey in the late 1940’s, a local gas station owner named Irving Reingold in Hackensack started offering a discount for the do-it-yourselfers.  Rather than charging the going rate of 21.9 cents a gallon, his self-service stations charged only 18.9 cents.  His operation became wildly popular, prompting competitors to retaliate by shooting up his station and forcing Reingold to install bullet-proof glass.  Competitors then persuaded the state legislature to ban the practice of self-serve and Reingold eventually went out of business.

 

So, in 1949 Trenton lawmakers passed the Retail Gasoline Dispensing Safety Act, which read:

 

“Because of the fire hazards directly associated with dispensing fuel, it is in the public interest that gasoline station operators have the control needed over that activity to ensure compliance with appropriate safety procedures, including turning off vehicle engines and refraining from smoking while fuel is dispensed.”


That law is still on the books in New Jersey, the only such state law in the nation. But recent polls show 73% of Garden-staters actually prefer being served by attendants.  Some of them have never pumped their own gas in a lifetime of driving.

 

The fine for violating the law is $500, though it’s seldom enforced.  Try pumping your own gas in New Jersey, assuming you can activate the pump, and you’re more likely to get a scolding than a ticket… as I have found from personal experience.  One study in 2015 showed that state had issued zero infractions in the previous two years for that heinous “crime”.

 

The town of Huntington on Long Island has a similar ban on self-serve, despite appeals from gas station owners to stay competitive.

 

Garden State residents have been trying for years to rescind their self-serve ban.

In 2015, State Assemblyman Dean O’Scanlon introduced a bill to allow self-serve saying he was “offended by people that argue that New Jerseyians are mentally incapable of pumping their own gas without setting themselves on fire”.  

 

Cynics say that New Jersey’s self-service ban is to protect thousands of pump-jockey jobs and higher profit margins for station owners.

 

Here in Connecticut, lawmakers seem to trust Nutmeggers with pumping their own fuel.  The new technology at pumps helps prevent accidents and the cases of motorist self-immolation are exceedingly rare… so far.

March 26, 2022

THE GAS TAX HUSTLE

 Attention all chiropractors and physical therapists!  Please report immediately to the state Capitol to treat the sore muscles of lawmakers who’ve twisted themselves into a pretzel, patting themselves on their backs for cutting the gasoline tax!

What a surprise (in an election year) that lawmakers voted unanimously to cut the gasoline tax 25 cents a gallon from April 1 – June 30th.  What a massive sense of relief for money-short taxpayers to save, what, $25 per car this spring.  Wow!  Let’s all drive to Disneyworld.

And what do you think will happen in June when summertime driving season really kicks into high gear.  Who’ll have the guts to vote against a probable extension of the tax cut heading into campaign season, even if gas prices have dropped by then?

While the savings may be tiny for each driver, the loss of tax revenue for the Special Transportation Fund (STF) will be significant… about $90 million.  That loss will be made up from other budget surpluses in Hartford which seems to be awash with taxpayer money.

In addition to the gasoline tax cut, we can all go on a spending spree with a sales tax holiday on clothing the week before Easter, but only on duds and footwear priced at less than $100… assuming it’s in stock, given the supply chain mess.

One group that will benefit from this bipartisan bounty will be bus riders.  They’ll literally get a free ride for three months.  Those folks deserve a break, as for them even the existing $1.75 fare adds up and represents more of their income than most commuters.

As for the Gold Coast fat-cats who ride Metro-North… let them eat cake.  No fare cuts for you beyond the railroad’s recently announced discount deals trying to entice riders back to the office.

This isn’t the first time our lawmakers have messed with the gas tax.  Some of us remember 1997 (when Transportation Committee Senate Chair Will Haskell was literally in diapers) when the tax was cut 14 cents a gallon. That costing the STF billions in money that could have kept our roads and rails in better shape.

What is really needed is what lawmakers refuse to do:  fix the state’s gasoline price-fixing oligopoly known as “zone pricing” that creates huge disparities in what the pump price is based solely on geography.  Why does gasoline cost 40 cents a gallon more in Greenwich than in Bridgeport?

And when, oh when, will we stop focusing on internal combustion vehicles draining our wallets and polluting our air?  When will we get serious about getting low m.p.g. junkers off the road, replacing them with clean, electric power?

When?  When we replace our part-time pols with full time legislators.

That’s why I enthusiastically endorse the idea of a pay raise for our lawmakers.  Their current $28,000 salary is a joke, leaving them fudging their travel expenses to scrape by, hoping to eke out a fatter pension.

Legislators’ jobs may be part time, but their responsibilities are full time plus OT, not to mention the commute.  At today’s pay scale only the rich can afford to do the job which hardly means they represent, let alone can identify with, their diverse constituents.

You get what you pay for.  Connecticut deserves full time, well paid lawmakers not the clown-car of political pandering we have now.

WHY IS THERE STILL NO WI-FI ON METRO-NORTH?

  Airplanes have Wi-Fi.   Even Connecticut’s   CTfastrak commuter bus system  from New Britain to Hartford gives its passengers free Wi-Fi. ...