December 15, 2017

"Getting There" - How will the Real ID Act affect you?

Something like 1.73 million Americans board airplanes ever day.  And each of them must go through a very necessary screening by the TSA, the Transportation Security Agency.  But beginning in late January 2018, a lot of passengers will be denied boarding because they don’t have the right kind of ID.

You can thank (or blame) the Real ID Act passed by Congress in 2005 after 9/11 to make sure people really are who they claim to be.  As any teen can tell you, it’s too easy to obtain a fake ID.  And if teens can do it, terrorists can also.

Because most people rely on their state driver’s license as ID, it’s been up to the states to gain compliance with the Federal rules.  A lot of those states are not in compliance, but Connecticut has passed the test, sort of.

If you’ve recently renewed your Connecticut license you know you were given an option:  get a “regular” license or a “verified” ID.  To get a verified license you needed to bring extra proof to the DMV:  a US passport, birth certificate, original Social Security card, etc.

Look at your CT license and you’ll easily see the difference.  If yours has a gold star in the upper right corner, you’re verified.  No gold star, NOT verified… meaning that as of 2020 your license will NOT be enough ID to get you on an airplane. That license clearly says “Not for Federal Identification”.  But for now, any CT driver’s license will get you past TSA.

Sure, you can always use your US Passport as ID.  It’s the gold standard and requires all kinds of identity proof to be issued. But if you don’t have a passport and don’t have a gold star on your CT driver’s license, starting in 2020 you’ll have to start thinking about taking Amtrak or driving.

Only about 40% of all Americans have a passport.  Compare that to countries like Canada (60%) or the UK (70%).  Considering the fact that millions of Americans have never even been out of the country, why would they need one? (PS:  Isn’t it amazing how those same people always say the USA is #1 having no point of comparison?)

Leaving aside the paranoids who think that having a passport is an invasion of privacy because they are now embedded with RFID chips containing who-knows-what kind of information about you, we should all have a passport. And getting one is pretty easy.

There are more than 8000 Passport Offices in the US, most of them US Post Offices or libraries which will process applications certain days each month.  But the main Passport Office for our state is in Stamford.  You can also file your application by mail, but only for renewals.  First time applicants must appear in person with all their documentation.

Mind you, US Passports are not cheap:  $110 for first time applicants, plus $25 application fee.  Renewals are also $110 and “expedited” passports are an extra $60.

Turn-around time on your application can be anywhere from two to six weeks.  There are also private services that claim to be able to get you a new passport in one day, but they’ll cost you.

So the bad news is:  if you don’t have a passport already, may need one eventually.  The good news is, December is a great time to apply as it’s the Passport Office’s “slow season”, compared to the summer travel rush.   Happy traveling!

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

December 08, 2017

"Getting There" - Feeling Sorry for Dan Malloy

Six words I never thought I’d write:  “I feel sorry for Dannel Malloy”.

Sure, we’ve had our differences. And yeah, the Governor does have the personality of a porcupine and the disposition of a bully, sometimes.  But the man is not evil and he doesn’t deserve what’s happening to him now.  Nor do we.

Our Governor is a lame duck.  Because he’s announced he’s not running for re-election, he has the political clout of a used teabag.  And even though he’s our state’s leader for another eleven months, nobody cares about him or his ideas any longer.

Legislative leaders declared him “irrelevant” during the budget negotiations, ignoring his ideas and then handing him a billion dollar problem.  Sure, they met for weeks and hammered out a compromise budget, but it wasn’t balanced unless the Governor specified over $1 billion in cuts.

Lawmakers didn’t have the guts to order the cuts themselves. They made Malloy do it so he would take the blame, not them.  So when the Governor cut municipal aid, social serves and education, our lawmakers feigned shock and anger.

More importantly, whatever happened to the Governor’s (and our) transportation dreams?  What became of “Let’s Go CT”, his 30-year, $100 billion “plan” to rebuild our roads and rails?  It’s pretty derailed, like his political clout.

Sure, legislators scraped together a few million to “ramp up” the grand plan.  And about $5 million to do more studies on widening I-95 and improving rail service.  But our state’s Special Transportation Fund (STF) is going to run out of money within a year or so if we don’t find new funding sources.  No money in the STF means no new projects, no road repairs and, probably, cuts in mass transit.

None of the new funding ideas for transportation are popular, which is why lawmakers (facing re-election) couldn’t pull the trigger on tolls or taxes, knowing there would be no appetite for any added costs to transportation among skeptical voters… unless there was a “lock box”.

Even then-candidate Malloy broke his own promise to not use the STF like a petty cash box to balance the budget.  Which is why he pushed hard to safeguard those funds from future Governors:  with a lock box we would know that our tolls and taxes could only be spent on transportation.

Tolls could bring in $62 billion over 25 years, 20-30% of that revenue coming from out of state residents.  Imagine what that money would do for our roads and mass transit.

Yes, lawmakers did vote to move the lock box idea to a 2018 referendum.  But the Democrats’ lock box is no more than a sieve to Republicans who think it can be “picked with a bobby pin”.

Without a lock box, nobody will support new revenue.  And without money, the STF will be bone dry in a few years and Malloy’s transportation dreams will be dead.

Somewhere in Hartford, maybe at the State Library, I imagine there’s a special room where plans like “Let’s Go CT” go to die.  I envision that room as stacked ceiling to floor with scores of multi-million dollar consultant studies on how to fix our transportation crisis.   A few have been read.  Fewer still acted upon.  Almost none have been funded.

So yes, I feel sorry for Dannel Malloy.  But mostly I feel sorry for us.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

December 02, 2017

"Getting There" Seniors and Transportation

None of us is getting any younger.  Which is why we should all start thinking now about the challenges that seniors face when it comes to “getting there”.

That’s one of the top priorities of the SWCAA, the Southwest Connecticut Agency on Aging.  Because, to maintain an independent life, seniors need to be able to get from their homes to doctors appointments, social engagements and even volunteer work. And their care-givers need to be able to get to their clients’ homes.

In the SWCAA region (Greenwich to Stratford) 20% of all residents are over age 60.  By 2020 that proportion will be 25%.  And with aging come issues of vision and cognition, especially behind the wheel.

Giving up your private car is a much-feared rite of passage for seniors, usually prompted by coaxing from their kids who start noticing dented fenders.  The DMV has no mandatory retirement age for driving, though if you accumulate enough points on your license you may need re-testing.

That’s not to say there aren’t folks over the age of 90 who are still good drivers.  But seniors are also smart enough to avoid driving on the interstates and the parkways and they don’t like driving at night.

With both parents often holding down daytime jobs, it’s often the senior who’s tasked with picking up grandchildren after school in addition to tending to their own numerous medical appointments.

But what happens when seniors lose their cars and the sense of independence they provides?  They become isolated, sometimes going days without social interaction, provoking depression and even accelerating dementia.

That’s why SWCAA is doing a regional assessment of all our towns and cities to see what alternatives might be available.  Clearly in big cities like Stamford and Bridgeport there’s mass transit.  But in rural towns like Monroe and Weston, there’s none.

Most communities do have some sort of ADA transportation, but that’s only if you can prove you’re disabled.  While mandated by the Federal government, such senior shuttles only guarantee a 30 minute window when it comes to pick-ups, often leaving clients anxiously waiting outside in the cold, worrying if they’ve missed their ride.

Even in communities with bus service, seniors may not be big fans if they have to walk long distances to the bus stop… or cope with long walks home carrying groceries.

Sometimes church groups will organize driver-volunteers while in more affluent towns there are non-profits that specialize in assisting their residents aging issues, including transportation.

Another attractive alternative are services like Uber and Lyft which whisk you door to door, on demand.  But even these services have problems:  they’re not affordable if you’re poor and not accessible if you don’t know how to run a smartphone app.

SWCAA is hoping that a special “senior version” of Lyft and Uber can be developed where seniors can call a dispatcher to book a ride and handle payments.  That way the seniors have someone they can talk to, someone who can also follow-up and make sure they got to their destination safely.  That “human touch” means a lot.

Self-driving cars may soon be on our streets, but we’ll see if seniors feel comfortable with that tech, too.

Whatever the alternative, transportation is essential to keeping our seniors active and engaged.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

"Getting There" - The New Canaan Club Car

We all dream about traveling first class.  Big comfy seats, real food and free drinks.  This is the only way to fly.

But did you know that there used to be a handful of private, first-class “club cars” on the New Haven Railroad’s commuter trains?  Among the most legendary was one that ran from New Canaan from 1908 to 1976, car # 5113.

Fortunately, the New Canaan Historical Society has preserved all of the original paperwork for private club known as “The New Canaan Car” (NCC).  And the story is fascinating.

The plush custom-built car carried about 60 passengers, half the load of a regular coach.  The car had its own buffet from which an attendant, Willie Spaulding (who worked for 26 
Attendant Willie Spauling at Christmas
years), dispensed continental breakfast in the morning and poured adult beverages in the evening.

Pulled on train #331 in the morning, the private car left New Canaan at 7:43 am, arriving at Grand Central by 8:48.  The return run on train #332 left at 5:09 pm and was back in New Canaan by 6:15.

Membership was not cheap.  In 1966 initiation fees were $200 and the monthly surcharge was $100, not including the price of the ticket.  By 1974 the NCC was paying Penn Central $69,300 a year to haul its private car.

Over the years I had heard rumors about this railroad “unicorn”… often reported but seldom seen.  And one of the rumors was that this gentlemen’s club did not allow women members.  Not so from reading their By Laws.  But neither did their membership directory ever show a female’s name as far as I could find.

Members were allowed to bring guests (even women!) with permission of all other 
Interior of The New Canaan Car
members.  And the NCC was famous for its birthday parties and holiday fests.  One set of minutes went into great detail about the BYO liquor cabinet which used to operate on the honor system but which by 1968 needed a lock and key.

Memberships in the NCC were handed down from father to son but there was no apparent waiting list.  In 1972 the Membership Committee was asking members to help identify “goodly and likely candidates” to replace retirees.

After the bankruptcy of the New Haven RR, Penn Central took over and the railroad raised its hauling fees.  Even though many of the NCC’s members were CEO’s of companies doing a lot of freight business with Penn Central, the railroad didn’t care.  It was broke.

The arrival of Metro-North saw the railroad convert from old, heavyweight cars pulled by locomotives to the all-electric M2’s, and this marked the end of the line for the NCC.
In 1976 Metro-North parent MTA said it was willing to rebuild a Bar Car just for the NCC; but at a cost of $70,000, that seemed too rich even for the New Canaan crowd.  Worse yet, then-Governor Ella Grasso said the state should not subsidize millionaire commuters in private cars.

The last run of the NCC’s private car was April 1st 1976.  When the train arrived in New Canaan at 6:15 pm, the party continued ‘til 8.  The next day members stripped the car of all its furnishing (which were owned by the club), including 64 chairs, six bridge tables and three smoke stands (ashtrays) which went into storage.  By 1979, the furniture storage fees had drained the NCC’s treasury and after 71 years, the club was dissolved… a sad end to such an illustrious history.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.

November 20, 2017

"Getting There" - Updates on past columns

This week, a few updates on some recent “Getting There” columns:

HYPERLOOP:         In July I wrote about tech entrepreneur Elon Musk’s idea to build a 700+ mph tube system to whisk passengers from Washington DC to NYC in 29 minutes.  Using a combination of a near-vacuum and linear induction motors, I noted that Musk has yet to build a working full-scale prototype, and called him “the PT Barnum of technology” offering “more hype than hope”.

At the time, Musk had just gone public after a meeting at the White House saying he’d been given “approval” to start boring giant tunnels for his project.  I scoffed at the notion, but have been proven wrong.

Sure enough, a faithful reader of this column told me that several weeks ago Maryland’s Governor has given Musk permission to start digging 10 miles of tunnels under the Baltimore – Washington Parkway to eventually link the two cities.  Boring will cost up to $1 billion a mile.  So, though I remain skeptical of Hyperloop’s future, I stand corrected.

MYTH OF THE THIRD RAIL:                 In October I wrote about our state’s complex electric system to power Metro-North… how in Connecticut those trains rely on overhead catenary to get power, but in Westchester County and into Grand Central, the trains convert to third rail for their power.

Given the perennial problems with the overhead wires, both old and new, I explained why converting to a third rail system in Connecticut didn’t make sense:  the trains would accelerate slower, we would still need catenary for Amtrak, etc.

What I did not know was that third rail power had been outlawed by the Connecticut State Supreme Court back in 1906 after a center-track third rail power system installed near Hartford by the New Haven RR resulted in several electrocutions.

Clearly, the current third-rail power system in use today is much safer than the one experimented with a century ago, but in this “land of steady habits” overturning that ban might be a challenge.

HIGH SPEED RAIL:          This summer the FRA and Amtrak released plans for a new high-speed rail (HSR) corridor through our state.  The very fuzzy drawings we had at the time showed new tracks running somewhere near I-95, not the current Metro-North tracks.

Now we have more detailed maps and, as feared, the mostly-elevated HSR system will fly over the interstate, smoothing out the curves to allow 200+ mph speeds.  But don’t get too enthused (or exasperated, depending on where you live): nobody likes the plan… our Congressional delegation, the CDOT and even local officials, all of whom must approve and fund the idea. And, oh yeah, we don’t have the money.

THE BILLION DOLLAR BRIDGE:          Preliminary work to replace the 121 year-old Walk Bridge in South Norwalk continues apace, even as local elections have turned the project into a political hot-potato.  Some oppose the cost and disruption of replacing the swing bridge with a two-section lift bridge while others, more nostalgic, want the new bridge to resemble the old.  Those proposing a fixed bridge, effectively closing the Norwalk river to commercial boat traffic, are keeping their hopes alive even though CDOT has rejected that idea.

Rumors that construction of the new bridge might require demolition of the Norwalk Aquarium’s Imax theater seem to have been confirmed.  But the real heavy construction won’t begin until 2019, so there’s plenty of time to catch a movie.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

November 13, 2017

"Getting There" - Repaving Our Roads Is Costly

Tired of driving on potholed roads?  Who isn’t?  We may not (yet) have tolls, but the terrible condition of our highways takes its toll on our vehicles with bent rims, alignments and other repairs.

There are more than 10,000 lane-miles of state highways in Connecticut, of which only 300 are repaved each year.  But that work involves more than just slapping a new layer of asphalt on those roads.

Repaving costs anywhere from $305,000 per mile and is funded with 20 year bonds.

PLANNING:            Years of planning go into repaving projects, making sure that all necessary utility work, drainage projects and water mains are finished before the CDOT comes in. Catch basins must be realigned, curbs replaced and sometimes even the guard rails raised before any work can be done.   Nothing pains the state more than to see a newly repaved road get dug up, creating cracks that can lead to potholes.

CDOT issues contracts for all repaving projects rather than using their own crews and those contractors must be sensitive to abutting neighbors, including businesses, which don’t want to be interfered with during construction.

As a result, most work is done at night with contractual obligations to return the road to use by the morning rush hour.  CDOT inspectors monitor every step of the project.

MILLING:     The repaving work begins by “milling” the old asphalt off the roadway, removing anywhere from the top inch to as much as six inches.  Some highways have up to 15 inches of old asphalt! 

The old asphalt is recycled and about 10% of it is re-used after necessary refining. 

Ideally, milling is quickly followed by the repaving, often in a day or so.  But as with the recent Route 1 repaving in project in Darien and Stamford, the contractor’s other obligations can leave the highway milled but unpaved for days or weeks.

REPAVING:            Laying down the new layer of asphalt can progress quickly if the road isn’t heavily traveled at night.  The fresh layer of new (and recycle asphalt) is usually two to three inches thick.

STRIPING:              CDOT always works with the local communities on how to designate the new traffic lanes with striping, coordinating with each town or city’s Local Traffic Authority.

Some towns want narrower lanes and wider shoulders, either for bicyclists or pedestrians.  But because these are state highways, CDOT always has the final say. 

A subsidiary of CDOT, the Office of the State Traffic Administration sets the speeds limits, sometimes higher than the local authorities might like.  CDOT says it’s looking for consistency in state roads going through towns, so a two-lane highway with a speed of 40 mph doesn’t go to a one-lane highway at 25 mph and back to two lanes as it crosses the town line.

The latest technology used in striping is a recessed epoxy compound, where the new pavement is carved out to about the depth of a penny before painting. This increases the striping’s lifespan after tough winters of plowing and sanding.
After the work is done, inspected and approved, the new paving can last anywhere from eight to 15 years, depending on traffic.  So, happy motoring!

SIDEBAR:  Annual repaving miles & cost

2017: 259 miles; $69 million
2016: 302 miles; $72.9 million
2015: 330 miles, $74.6 million
2014: 305 miles, $68.9 million
2013: 242 miles, $57 million
2012: 223 miles, $57 million
2011: 271 miles, $50 million
2010: 241 miles, $50 million
2009: 216 miles, $49 million
2008: 265 miles, $54 million
2007: 165 miles, $48 million
2006: 191 miles, $42 million
2005: 253 miles, $49 million


Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

November 06, 2017

"Getting There" - CT's Budget Crisis & Transportation

“Why don’t they build a monorail down the middle of I-95?”

So began the latest in a series of well-intentioned emails I regularly receive from readers, anxious to offer what seem like smart solutions to our transportation crisis in Connecticut.
Why no monorail?  Because we don’t have the money.

So let me ask — and answer — a few questions:

Why do we issue 20-year bonds to pay for highway repaving that, at best, will last 15 years?
Why does 40 percent of the state’s Department of Transportation’s annual budget pay for debt service on old bonds instead of buying new trains?  Because we don’t have the money.

In China, they spend 10 percent of their GDP on infrastructure. In the U.S., it’s more like 2 percent. Why the under-investment?  Because we are paying so much to play catchup on the lack of savings in previous decades for things like pensions for state worker and teachers.

In other words, we don’t have money for new trains — let alone a monorail — because we’re stuck paying the bills passed down to us that our parents didn’t pay. But nobody in Hartford has the guts to tell you that truth.

But objective experts who follow the budget process for a living have some ominous warnings:
  • The state has authorized $3 billion in transportation bonds we can’t even issue because we don’t have the money to pay for them.
  • We are in so much debt that some towns have been forced to issue bonds (IOUs) to pay for snow removal.
  • The state has issued bonds to make payments on other bonds — like taking out a second mortgage to pay your first.
  • Connecticut’s debt now adds up to $14,800 for every man, woman and child in the state. That compares to a national average of $4,300 in other states.
  • We have a $6 billion “balloon payment” upcoming on the underfunded teachers’ pension, and we don’t have the money. Yet, pandering politicians now give teacher retirees a 25 percent state income tax exemption on their pensions — soon to rise to 50 percent. Why? The average teacher pension in Connecticut is $59,700.
  • Pensions and medical care for teachers and state employees plus debt service will soon be 60 percent of the state’s budget.
  • Experts say it will soon be legally and mathematically impossible NOT to raise taxes in Connecticut. The latest deal with state workers promises no layoffs for four years and declaring bankruptcy is not legally possible.

So you wonder why our roads are potholed, our rails so rickety and our airports so poorly ranked? It’s because we don’t have the money.

The economic piggy bank known as Fairfield County still provides 40 percent of all the income taxes in this state, but it’s no longer growing by double-digits like previous years. A handful of billionaires in Greenwich and New Canaan could throw us into chaos if they all decided to pull up stakes and move elsewhere. And if train service on Metro-North gets much worse, they’ll have even more incentive to leave.

Yet, our elected officials in Hartford continue to lie to us about what’s coming, more concerned with their re-election by not being seen as raising taxes than telling us that Armageddon is just around the corner.

So expect our transportation infrastructure to get much worse before it gets any better. And no, we will not be building a monorail.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

"Getting There" - To Vermont By Rail

Like many, I love Vermont.  But I’m not crazy about getting there.
From my home to Burlington VT is about 300 miles.  By car, that’s at least five hours and about $50 in gas each way.  Flying may seem quicker, but with the airport drive it’s not much better and about $160. But there’s another alternative: Amtrak.
There are actually three trains a day that will take you to (or close to) Vermont:
THE VERMONTER:          Your best choice, this train runs daily from Washington DC to St Albans VT (right next to Burlington), coming through Stamford at about noontime each day.  It also stops in Bridgeport and New Haven before heading up the Connecticut River Valley to Vermont stops in Brattleboro, Windsor, Montpelier, Waterbury (Stowe) and Essex Junction (Burlington), to name but a few.
It’s not the fastest run (Stamford to Essex Junction is 8 hours), but it’s certainly beautiful and relaxing.  A frustrating reverse move at Palmer MA has been eliminated with new tracks, shaving an hour off the run.
The Amfleet seats in coach are comfy. There’s also business class seating (for a premium).  The AmFood is tasty.  The crew is great… and there’s even free WiFi.  Despite the many stops, the train hits 80 mph in many stretches on smooth, welded rails.  And the views of fall foliage can’t be beat.
Remember:  Amtrak runs in any kind of weather, so if you’re thinking of skiing this winter when there’s a blizzard and its 20 below zero, the train will get you there when airports and highways are closed.
THE ETHAN ALLEN EXPRESS:            If you’re heading to Rutland VT on the western side of the state, this is your train. Originating at NY’s Penn Station mid-afternoon, this train bypasses Connecticut and shoots up the Hudson Valley, arriving in Rutland just before 9 pm with stops in Saratoga Springs, Glens Falls and Castleton VT.  For Connecticut residents, the best strategy is to catch this train at Croton-Harmon (in Westchester County) where there’s plenty of paid parking available.  The hope is that the Ethan Allen may be extended from Rutland north to Burlington in the coming years.  And maybe from there to Montreal.
Same kind of Amfleet cars, coach and business, AmCafé and free WiFi.
THE ADIRONDACK:         This daily train from NY’s Penn Station to Montreal doesn’t go through Vermont, but it gets you close… if you don’t mind a ferry boat ride.  Leaving NYC at 8:15 am, you detrain at Port Kent NY on the western shore of Lake Champlain about 2:40 pm, walk about 100 yards down to the dock and catch the ferry to downtown Burlington.
Same kind of seating, WiFi etc, but on this train you’re traveling with a much more international crowd of Quebecois.  Poutine anyone?  And in the fall they even run a special dome car several days a week for the gorgeous scenery north of Albany.

Thanks to state subsidies and increasing ridership, fares on all of these Amtrak are very affordable:  on The Vermonter, Stamford to Burlington (booked in advance) is just $50 one-way and kids are half-price.  

So if you’re planning a vacation in The Green Mountain state, remember that getting there can be half the fun if you leave the driving to Amtrak… the “green” way to travel.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

October 27, 2017

"Getting There" - The Myth of the Third Rail

Hardly a season goes by without service on Metro-North being disrupted by a “wires down” accident.  That’s when the overhead catenary that powers our trains breaks or is ripped from its poles, cutting electricity and service and ruining the commute for thousands.
But why do we rely on such fragile wires, some of them installed 100 years ago?  Isn’t there a better way of powering our trains?  Probably not.
Consider this:  ours is the only commuter railroad in the US that relies on three modes of power:  AC, DC and diesel.
Trains leaving Grand Central first operate on 750 DC current picked up from the third-rail, just like NYC’s subways.  Around Pelham, in Westchester County, the trains raise their pantographs (those triangular shaped contraptions atop the cars) and convert to 12,500 volt AC current picked up from the catenary, hence the phrase “operating under the wire”.
On the Danbury and Waterbury branch lines there is no electricity, so those trains must be powered by diesel.  But even those diesels must operate on third-rail power in the Park Avenue tunnels for environmental and safety reasons.
That’s a lot of technology for one railroad to administer, and a lot of electronics.  That is why the M8 cars that operate on AC and DC require separate power processing, adding to their cost.  The third-rail only M7 cars that run on the Hudson and Harlem lines cost about $2 million each.  But our newer and more complicated M8’s cost about $2.75 million apiece.
So a lot of people ask me… “Why not just use one power source by converting the entire line to third rail?”  As with so many other seemingly simple solutions there are several good reasons why it wouldn’t work.
Mind you, the idea was studied by CDOT in the 1980s and rejected.  And here’s why:
1)     There’s not enough room to add a third rail along most of the four-track system.  You’d have to move the tracks, widen the right-of-way and expand a lot of the bridges and tunnels it uses.  Imagine the cost.
2)    Even if we did convert to third-rail, we’d still have to maintain the overhead catenary system for Amtrak whose locomotives get their power under the wire.
3)    A third-rail power system needs more real estate:  power substations every few miles, adding to construction and cost.
4)    Third-rail DC power is nowhere near as efficient as overhead wire AC power.  That means slower acceleration in third-rail territory and speed limits of about 75 mph vs 90 mph under the wire.  Remember… the fastest trains in the world (like the TGV and Shinkansen) operate under the wire, though theirs is not as aged and brittle as ours.
5)    Third-rail is dangerous to track workers and trespassers.  Overhead wires, much less so.
6)    Third-rail can ice up and get buried in blizzards, causing short-circuits.  We’ve had some amazing winter weather in Connecticut, but nothing that piled snow high enough to touch the overhead wires.
I’ll admit that weather does cause problems for the catenary.  In extreme heat it can expand and sag and in bitter cold it can become brittle and snap.  Both conditions require our trains to operate (even) more slowly, but they still get you where you’re going.
So what’s the solution to our “wires down” problems?  Accelerated replacement of old wire, better maintenance of pantographs and a little common sense… and not conversion to third-rail.

Reposted with permission of Hearst CT Media

October 14, 2017

"Getting There" - The Long Haul Trucker

Why do most motorists hate truck drivers?  Is it because their big rigs are so intimidating?  Or do we think they’re all red-neck cowboys, living the life on the range and we’re secretly jealous?

I respect truckers and think, for the most part, they are much better drivers than the rest of us.  They have stiffer licensing requirements, better safety monitoring and much more experience behind the wheel.  And unlike most of us driving solo in our cars, they are driving truly “high occupancy (cargo) vehicles”… 22 tons when fully loaded.

For an inside look at the unglamorous life of a trucker, I can highly recommend the new book “Long Haul” by Greenwich native Finn Murphy who’s been driving since he was 18 for the Joyce Moving Company.

Murphy is what truckers call a “bedbugger” because he specializes in high-end corporate relocations.  He’s at the top of the trucker food chain, both in income and prestige, far ahead of car haulers (parking lot attendants), animal haulers (chicken chokers) and even hazmat haulers (suicide jockeys).

While Murphy says a lot of long haul truckers do the job because they can’t find any other work, his career choice was an educated decision as his left Colby College before graduation, realizing he could easily make $100,000 packing, moving and unpacking executives’ possessions without a BA.

Forty million Americans move each year and from this author’s perspective they all have too much stuff.  They covet their capitalist consumption of furniture and junk (what movers call chowder).  And it ain’t cheap to move it, averaging about $20,000 for a long distance relocation.   But as he sees it, he’s more in the “lifestyle transition” business than simply hauling and is sensitive to clients’ emotional state.

Murphy’s African American boss nicknamed him “The Great White Mover” as, at age 59, he’s one of the last few white drivers.  Most of the industry is now handled by people of color, especially the local crews that do the packing and unpacking.  When self-driving trucks hit the road, thousands of minority drivers are going to be out of luck.  Robots already do most of the loading and unloading of trucked merchandise bound for big-box stores.
As an independent operator, Murphy incurs all of the expenses.  His tractor (the detachable engine part of the truck) costs $125,000.  That’s not counting the $3500 he pays to register it or $10,000 to insure it.  A new tire (his rig has 18) costs $400 at a truck stop and maybe double that if he’s stranded on some interstate.

The average rig isn’t just a tractor hauling an empty trailer.  Even before loading, that trailer has hundreds of pads (each of which must be neatly folded), plywood planks, dollies, tools, ramps and hundreds of rubber straps for tying things down.  Loading his truck is like solving a giant Tretris 3D puzzle.

Murphy’s driving hours are regulated and carefully logged, then checked at every inspection station.  But he thinks nothing of driving 700 miles per day, usually parking at a truck stop and sleeping in his on-board bunk equipped with a high-end stereo and 600 count Egyptian cotton sheets.

On the road he listens to audio books and NPR, which is probably how he learned to write so well (the book is not ghost written).  Finn Murphy isn’t the brawniest of movers, but he’s easily among the smartest and most articulate.  Even if you have no aspirations of life on the open road, you’ll enjoy this articulate author’s prose.

Reposted with permission of Hearst CT Media

September 30, 2017

"Getting There" - Death on the Tracks

Nationally, more than 400 people are killed by trains each year, most at grade-crossings where highways go over railroad tracks.

According to the Federal Railroad Administration “ the average victim is most often a 38-year-old Caucasian male under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs, with a median household income of $36,000. More than 25 percent did not graduate from high school, and 18 percent were determined to be suicides. “

In Connecticut last year the FRA says there were six deaths on the tracks, most of them involving Amtrak trains, but a few by Metro-North.  The question is: were they preventable?

When I started researching this story nobody wanted to talk to me.  The railroads told me that writing about suicides just provoked others to take their lives, even referring me to a psychologist who has studied this issue, Dr. Scott Gabree at the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center.  He also tried to dissuade me from writing about this.  The less people wanted to talk, the more interested I became.

But my focus here is not on those trying to take their own lives, but those who die by accident or out of ignorance.

Last month there were two such deaths in as many days, one in Port Chester and the other near Fairfield.  The results of the investigations into the deaths have not been released, but the victims are described as “trespassers”.  They were on foot, near the tracks, not in a car.

There are no grade crossings on Metro-North’s main line between Grand Central and New Haven, though the New Canaan, Danbury and Waterbury branch lines have 53 such crossings, most equipped with gates and lights.  In all, Connecticut has more than 600 grade crossings, most of them rarely used by trains.

But on Metro-North’s Harlem branch, a deadly collision in February 2015 took the life of a distracted driver stopped on the tracks and five others on the train that hit her car, killed by the resulting fire.  The NTSB blamed that auto driver, not the railroad, for the deaths.

After the Valhalla NY crash, deadliest in Metro-North’s history, the railroad started its own education effort:  TRACKS, or Together Railroads and Communities Keeping Safe.  They’re also working on preventing suicides with a phone hotline.

Working with the nation’s railroads, the Washington DC-based “Operation Lifesaver” tries to educate everyone about the dangers of getting in the way of trains, in your car or on foot.  With slogans like “Train time is anytime” and “Stand clear, Stand here” their PSA’s warn people that trains can be deadly.

In each state, local coordinators for “Operation Lifesaver” use grants for public education, including posters, PSA’s, brochures and such, in English and Spanish.  But the Connecticut DOT has not applied for, nor received, any “Operation Lifesaver” money in the past two years.

The CDOT tells me they are spending $2 million a year to improve grade crossing safety and that the lapse in Operation Lifesaver grant requests was due to a change in personnel.  Still, the state left a lot of needed money on the table.

Without education, the soon-to-open New Haven to Hartford commuter line will mean more trains and more danger at that line’s 25 grade crossings.  The message is simple:  stay off the tracks!

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media



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