December 31, 2018

"Getting There" - The Story of GPS

Why is it that men have a reputation for never asking for directions, even when they’re lost?  Is it because they’re macho, or just don’t like maps?  Why do we enjoy the hunt over finding the prize?

Well, that debate has been made moot by technology thanks to the invention of GPS… the Global Positioning System.  You probably have one in your car and on your phone and depend on it exclusively to get where you’re going.

The history of GPS isn’t that old, but it is fascinating.

Back in 1973 the US Department of Defense launched the first of what would become a fleet of 31 satellites circling 12,550 miles above the globe.  Each satellite has a built-in atomic clock, synchronized with the ground station and the other satellites. The satellites constantly transmit data about their time and location, and GPS “receivers” (in your car and smart-phone) pick up the signals from at least four satellites to compute your location.

Initially the GPS system was only for military use.  But after Korean Airlines flight 007 was shot down for straying into Russian airspace, President Reagan issued an order making the system available for civilians.

In 2000 President Clinton enhanced the order, making GPS even more sensitive to your exact location.  Today the most accurate GPS receivers (used on aircraft) can tell you where you are to an accuracy of 3.5 meters.

That’s when commercialization took off, though the first portable GPS receivers weighed 1.5 pounds, could only run on batteries for two hours and cost $3000.

Cellphone manufacturers started offering built-in GPS starting in the late 1990’s and in 2002 the FCC mandated the system be built into cell-towers to be able to triangulate a user calling 911. 

The US military relies on built-in GPS to guide weapons to their targets. But the civilian benefits of this technology range from mapping to disaster relief.  And, of course, self-driving cars.

Another popular commercial application of GPS is “fleet management”.  GPS-equipped cars and trucks can constantly be monitored at the head office so dispatchers can tell who’s on the job and who’s taking an extended break.

Law enforcement also uses GPS.  A commercial device called Stingray can ping any phone and get it to transmit its location.  According to the ACLU, 75 law enforcement agencies in 27 states use Stingray.  But in Connecticut, they first need a warrant.

Not to be outdone, the Russians, EU, India and Japan also have their own GPS systems.  Adding the Russian GLONASS system to our GPS can increase its accuracy to 2 meters. A separate Chinese GPS system, Beidou, will be operational globally by 2020.

But all of this tech is not foolproof.  Homeland Security worries about GPS spoofing and jamming.  Though prohibited by law, a $33 GPS jamming device has been used to interfere with location tracking at such sensitive locations as US airports.

And in an era when killer satellites can blast a GPS bird in outer space, one worries how vulnerable we are in a time of war when zapping just four US GPS satellites could cripple our system.

So as you wend your way over hill and dale to Grandma’s house for the holidays, you might just want to keep an old-school paper map in your glove compartment.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

December 20, 2018

"Getting There" - The MTA's 'Big Dig'

We all know what happened when Boston decided to bury its downtown elevated interstate highway, known as the Central Artery.  What was intended to be a seven-year, $2.6 billion project ended up as a ten-year, $14.6 billion engineering nightmare.
Well, heads up, fellow commuters and taxpayers!  New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, or MTA, (parent of Metro-North) has similar designs on our beloved Grand Central.  Nicknamed the “East Side Access” project, the goal is to bring some Long Island Railroad trains into Grand Central.
The plan would use the lower level of the already built 63rd Street subway tunnel, allowing some LIRR trains from Queens to enter Manhattan and then follow a new, very deep tunnel under existing Metro-North tracks beneath Park Avenue.  Trains would terminate 14 stories under Grand Central on eight tracks with up to 24 trains arriving per hour.  Exiting passengers… an estimated 162,000 per day (compared with the 115,000 who arrive and depart at GCT from Connecticut)… would be whisked upward on high speed escalators, into an underground concourse complex stretching from 43rd to 48th streets beneath Vanderbilt Avenue.
A few years ago I donned boots and a hard hat and surveyed the construction.  It looked like something out of a James Bond movie, it was so massive.
The cost has already ballooned from $3.5 billion to $11 billion in a project rife with corruption.  In 2010 the MTA discovered it was paying 200 workers $1000 a day each with no assigned duties.  This year we found that relatives of high-ranking union officials were being paid $42 an hour (plus $23 in benefits) to deliver coffee to the workers.  Construction analysts say it costs four times as much in New York City to build projects like these compared to Asian and European jobs.
The East Side Access project will give LIRR riders better access to midtown.  But is today’s subway ride connection from Penn Station to GCT really all that bad?  Imagine what we could do with $11 billion to improve commuter rail service in the tri-state region.
More worrying:  what will a more than doubling of passengers in GCT (by adding LIRR to existing Metro-North riders) mean for Connecticut commuters?  Well, if you think the station’s crowded now, you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet.  GCT would quickly be maxed out for trains and platforms, making much-needed expansion of train service to Connecticut a real problem.
And just imagine the already jam-packed Lexington Avenue subway station with even more riders!
True, diverting some LIRR trains into GCT should free-up “slots” in Penn Station for some Metro-North trains (which would travel there by way of the Hell Gate bridge), but don’t count on it, what with New Jersey Transit, Amtrak and LIRR also vying for more access to Penn Station.
If all of this concerns you, don’t get your knickers in a knot.  There’s nothing you can do to stop it.  The money’s already been appropriated and the project should be finished in 2022.
What role did Connecticut play in this boondoggle?  Zero… nada… zilch.  New York’s MTA didn’t ask our opinion or seek our approval.  Connecticut commuters pay the bills and New York’s MTA calls the tune, building a really “big dig” that benefits Long Island but penalizes us.  What’s wrong with this picture?

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

"Getting There" - The Twentieth Century Limited

It was possibly the most famous train in American history:  The Twentieth Century Ltd ran between Grand Central Terminal and Chicago for 65 years, offering the finest in accommodations and services.

The first train of this name ran in 1902, making the journey in 20 hours, four hours faster than before.  By 1905 the running time was cut to 18 hours.  So confident was the operator, New York Central RR, of delivering on-time performance, they offered each passenger $1 per hour for any delays.  And that’s when a one-way fare was about $50 for a sleeping section.

The train was like a land cruise, complete with two-car dining car, observation lounge and bar, a valet, barber and even a secretary who could take dictation.  By 1928, its peak year, the Twentieth Century was bringing in $10 million a year, making it the most profitable train in the world.

It was so popular, it didn’t just run one train a night but as many as seven different sections, each outfitted with the same equipment and staff.  By the end of the decade departure was pushed back to 5:30 pm as passengers boarded from a purpose-built red carpet rolled out each evening on the GCT platform.

All of the premium compartments and bedrooms were arranged so they faced the Hudson River so passengers could enjoy the view.  The powerful Hudson class of locomotives could pull the 18-car train at a steady 90 mph.  To save time in refueling, it even took on water for its steam boilers running at speed using a pan and scoop system built in the middle of the tracks, still visible today south of Albany.

Billed as “the water level route”, the NY Central competed well against its arch rival The Pennsylvania RR’s “Broadway Limited”.  Travel times were similar, but the Century promised a smoother ride compared to the Pennsy’s which crossed the Allegheny Mountains.

In 1939 the Century got a major makeover by Henry Dreyfuss, a theatrical designer who had moved into industrial design.  Dreyfuss went on to bring streamlined design to vacuum cleaners, telephones and dozens of household items.  His remake of the Century included everything from car interiors to dinnerware.

Service continued during World War II and by 1948 another redesign saw steam locomotives replaced with diesels.  The NY Central ordered 500 new cars and its flagship train now offered such innovations as fluorescent lighting and an onboard shower. But increased competition by airliners was eating into the train’s profits.

A three hour flight between NY and Chicago required a crew of six.  But a 16 hour train ride on the Century had a crew of 50 and the engineers would change shifts every 100 miles and receive a day’s pay.  This was an expensive train to operate.

By the mid-1950’s the train lost its Mail & Express cars while construction of the NY Thruway, paralleling its route, saw a further loss of passengers and revenue.

On December 2, 1967 the once glorious Century made its last run from Grand Central, only half-full and almost 10 hours late into Chicago.

Today Amtrak offers a similar run, The Lakeshore Ltd, which completes the journey in 19 hours… and is usually late.  It has sleeping cars and coaches, but the dining car no longer serves hot food, only a boxed lunch.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

December 09, 2018

"Getting There" - The Trucker Shortage

As if crumbling bridges and pot-holed highways weren’t enough to worry about, now America’s transportation network is facing a new crisis:  a shortage of truck drivers.

According to the American Trucking Association (ATA), trucks carry more than 70% of all domestic freight, bringing in $719 billion in revenue.  It’s trucks, not trains, that deliver our Amazon purchases and fill the shelves of our favorite big box stores for the holidays. So while we hate to drive behind them on our highways, we love what trucks deliver.

But now, of the existing half-million truck drivers in the US, demographics are taking their toll as more and more retire each year, leaving those jobs unfilled. The ATA estimates the industry needs 51,000 new truck drivers.  And new candidates are not stepping forward.

Why?  Well, the ATA says Gen Z’ers don’t like the lifestyle.  They don’t want to spend long, lonely days or weeks doing long-hauls, eating bad food and sleeping in their rigs.  Even money, like $50,000 signing bonuses, isn’t attracting them.

The average trucker makes $59,000 and drivers for private fleets can make $86,000. But lengthy, expensive training courses present a roadblock to immediate recruitment.  And newly mandated technology tracking drivers’ time on the road is exacerbating the problem.

Drivers are only supposed to drive 11 hours of every 14 hours a day, but many used to fudge their paper log-book records because they got paid by the mile.  Since last December, electronic logging has been the law, so the safety rules are impossible to circumvent.  Of course, nobody wants tired drivers on the road, but in the cause of safety, truckers are losing efficiency.

Where will the industry find new drivers?  Well, women still only represent about 6% of all drivers.  And minorities have seen their numbers increase 12% in the past year.  And the industry is also seeking a reduction in the minimum driving age from 21 to 18.

What’s this all mean to us as consumers?  Higher costs.

Amazon saw a 38% increase in shipping costs in the first quarter, forcing it to raise its (unlimited free-shipping) Amazon Prime membership fee from $99 to $119 a year.  Across the industry spectrum, shipping rates are rising.

But the real solution will probably be self-driving trucks.

That’s why big companies like Waymo (owned by Google), Tesla and Uber, as well as truck-builders like Freightliner and Volvo are investing heavily in the autonomous technology.

Not that we’ll be seeing driverless trucks on Connecticut interstates anytime soon.  There’s probably too much congestion to make them practical.  But there are vast stretches of interstates in “fly over country” out west where self-driving trucks make perfect sense, delivering truckloads of products to automated warehouses where robots will unload them.

Automating trucking may be good for the industry but it certainly doesn’t help with recruitment.  Who wants to sign on for a career knowing full well they may be replaced by a robot?

Sociologist and 13-year trucker Steve Viscelli says the solution is in changing the system:  paying truckers for actual hours on the road (not just mileage), including those times when truckers must waste hours or days waiting for a new load.

Whatever the solution, it’s clear who’ll end up paying:  consumers.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.

"Getting There" - Fairer Fares

How much should it cost to ride mass transit?  Are our fares too high?  Would lower fares increase ridership?  If so. why not make the trains free?

As I’ve noted any number of times, fares on Metro-North in Connecticut are among the highest commuter railroad fares in the US.  That’s because our state’s subsidy is the lowest… about 24%, compared to a 50% fare subsidy on the Long Island Railroad. Of course, Hartford’s attitude is that everyone in Fairfield County is a millionaire and can afford to pay more.

Ironically, every time there’s a fare increase, ridership doesn’t go down… it goes up.  Why?  Because the travel alternatives, especially going into NYC, are few and all of them are getting worse.  Metro-North has a captive audience.  Commuters have no choice but to take the train.

Fare subsidies are much higher on the Danbury and Waterbury branch lines and Shore Line East where ridership is lighter compared to the mainline.  But service is also less frequent, which might counter those who think lower fares would attract more passengers:  cheap fares and poor service aren’t what we want.

Of course, few passengers on Metro-North actually pay “full fare”.  Off-peak riders get a 25% discount as do members of the military on all trains.  Seniors and the disabled get a 50% price break as do monthly commuters.

While I understand that daily commuters think they deserve a break, they also place the greatest strain on the system over the shortest number of hours, Aside from the frequency of their travel, one could argue that they should be paying a premium, not getting 50% off.
Of course, the fares are the same whether you’re rich or poor, which is why some have started asking for a “fairer fare”, one based on a rider’s ability to pay.

In New York City where subways and buses cost $2.75, there are price breaks for seniors (50%) and even all-you-can-ride monthly passes.  But starting in January 2019 those living below the poverty line (income of $25,000 for a family of four) will qualify for a 50% discount MetroCard.  Some 800,000 residents will potentially be eligible for the plan.  

NYC Mayor De Blasio says the $106 million subsidy would be better carried by rich taxpayers, not the rest.

Similar discounts for the poor have worked well in Seattle and Toronto (where NYC Subway’s new chief Andy Byford came from).  Proponents argue that mobility is an essential right and if you want to get people out of poverty, they’ve got to be able to afford to get to their job.

So… why not free mass transit?

That’s what they’ve just launched in Estonia in an effort to fight traffic and air pollution.  Skeptics says it will help fight neither but will only replace walking with tram rides.

One Connecticut lawmaker once proposed free rides for all Seniors.  But I don’t think the fare is the reason seniors don’t take buses. It’s the service and fears for their safety.

But all such “free” service begs the question of who is really paying for it… the taxpayers.  As with our “free” highways (the ones without tolls), I think it’s much fairer to ask those who use the service to help pay for it.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

December 03, 2018

"Getting There" - Commuting by Aerial Tram

How’d you like to commute above the traffic by aerial cableway?  Thousands do it daily in cities around the world and more places are looking at this technology as a solution.

Most Americans’ experience with aerial cableways would probably be at DisneyWorld or at ski resorts:  small, enclosed cabins carried up and over the terrain, attached to moving cables.  But here we’re talking about much bigger transit systems.

Maybe you’ve ridden on the Roosevelt Island Tramway in New York City.  Opened in 1976 to connect the island’s residents to the upper East Side, it once carried 5500 passengers daily, though ridership has dropped since a new subway station opened.  It was the first such system in the country and was not without its problems, breaking down for weeks at a time.

In Portland OR an aerial tram carries 10,000 passengers each day up a steep hill to the Oregon Health & Science University campus.  Being such a transit-friendly city, the tram connects with trolleys and light rail at a base station next to a 250-space bicycle parking lot.

But both these systems are limited, only offering what’s known as point-to-point service with no stops in between.

In Latin America you’ll find aerial trams on steroids.  Like the La Paz Bolivia Teleferico which covers 19 miles with 27 stations on three separate lines. On opening day the first line carried 41,000 passengers in 10-person gondolas.

And in Medellin Columbia, the MetroCable Medellin has cut commuting times from an hour to just 10 minutes, whisking 40,000 passengers at 10 miles an hour up and down a 1300 foot incline.  The Medellin system now offers six miles of cable connecting nine stations on three lines.

Both of the South American systems use their trams to overcome serious terrain challenges.  But would this tech find application in flatter areas?

The folks in Williamsburg Brooklyn think so.  They are facing 18 months of no subway service to Manhattan starting in April 2019 when the L train is shut down for repairs.  That’s going to leave 100,000 residents scrambling for buses across an already crowded bridge to 14th St. in Manhattan. 

That’s why they’re pushing for what they call The East River Skyway offering a 10 minute ride to Delancey Street from two stations in Brooklyn. One concept calls for 38-person gondolas departing every 30 – 40 seconds, adding up to 5000 passengers an hour.   Estimated construction cost:  $75 - $100 million, probably with private money.

Aerial tramways have serious cost advantages over street-based or subway systems.  All you’re really building are towers to carry the cable, so estimates are $50 - $60 million per mile and construction time of just 12-18 months.

Operating costs are also lower as the system uses much less energy, creating fewer greenhouse gas emissions.  And real estate folks like the system both for its novelty and potential TOD (transit oriented development) possibilities near the stations.

The downsides?  You’d have to obtain air rights along the path.  And the system would be far more susceptible to weather than a ground-based system.  High winds and thunder-storms would force closure of the system, stranding passengers.

As our roads and rails reach gridlock, it may well be that to go up and over the delays will prove to be an interesting solution in years to come.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

November 18, 2018

"Getting There" - An Open Letter to the Governor-Elect

Well, you did it.  Congratulations on your election.  And my condolences.  The easy part of politics is over:  getting elected.  Now comes the hard part:  being Governor.

I hope you and your transition team are already working on that budget that’s due in three months.  There’s a lot of red ink ($4 billion) that needs to be mopped up.  And don’t forget those $80 billion in unfunded pensions.  But I’m sure you’ve got the solutions, right?    That’s what you promised voters, anyhow.  So have at it.

But as you are cutting and slashing, may I be so bold as to make a few suggestions on the transportation front?  Your campaign assured us you’d fix our roads and rails, so I’m sure you have your ideas.  But let’s see if these are of any help.

1)    KEEP YOUR COMMISSIONER:   Jim Redeker has been CDOT Commissioner since 2011 and nobody knows better what’s working and what isn’t.  He’s clearly the smartest guy in the room and you need his experience and talents.  Let’s not lose him to another state.

2)    FIX THE TRAINS FIRST:  You can’t keep high wage earners (and tax payers) living in Connecticut if Metro-North continues its downward slide.  Getting trains back up to speed and on-time is crucial to the state’s economy.

3)    THEN IMPROVE BUS SERVICE:          I hope you realize that the CTFastrak bus rapid-transit system is hugely important and not the “waste of money” your opponent claimed.  Not everyone in this state owns a car.  For the 15 million riders of that busway since it opened, those buses mean being able to get to their jobs.  That is what we want, right… people working?

4)    RIDE MASS TRANSIT:     You campaigned at train and bus stations, now why not get onboard?  Set an example by taking the train from Greenwich to Hartford and riding the bus with your constituents.  See the conditions first hand.

5)    GET GOING WITH TOLLS:         We both know they’re inevitable, despite your opponents’ “tolls are a tax” lie during the campaign.  Let’s stop losing revenue to out-of-staters and truckers and make them pay for driving on our roads.  Start with tolling trucks, though I doubt that’s legal.

6)    HONOR THE LOCKBOX:            Voters have spoken loudly!  The Special Transportation Fund is now padlocked.  Don’t you dare think about picking that lock or letting the Legislature touch those funds for anything but transportation.

7)    PLEASE BE HONEST:      You and your opponents glossed over the tough issues in the campaign, making vague, general comments about improving our lives.  You got the job, so now don’t give us any BS.  Tell us about the hard choices to come.  Embrace the FOI act.  Be open and transparent… and honest.  We’re adults.  We can take it.

8)    DON’T ABUSE THE MAJORITY:     Once again the Democrats are in full control in Hartford.  That’s a lot of power in a few hands and your party’s record on “reaching across the aisle” isn’t great.  Our problems can only be solved with bi-partisan cooperation, so please set the best example.

That’s enough for now.  Get some rest, maybe even a vacation, and we’ll talk again in the coming months.

Best wishes,
Jim Cameron
“The Train Guy”

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

November 11, 2018

"Getting There" - The Lockbox Question

Perfection is the enemy of good, said Voltaire.  Life is a series of compromises and waiting for “perfect” is like standing still.  You’ll never get anywhere.

So it is this election season.

The convention and primary season has delivered us a short list of flawed candidates pandering platitudes of perfection to a weary, cynical electorate.  It’s enough to make you decide to not vote, lest you encourage and enable this behavior.

But forget about the gubernatorial choices.  It’s your State Representative and State Senator that will be crafting the laws, so pay them heed.  Those are the races that really count, so in the waning days of the campaign, go to the debates, read the candidates’ platforms, study the issues and editorials.

Ask for specifics, not generalities.  If they say they want to improve train service, ask how and paid for with what.  The devil’s in the details and I, for one, am tired of vague generalities that get people elected and then see them do nothing. 

And don’t forget to turn over your ballot.  That’s where the single most important thing you can do to fix transportation will be found:  the Lockbox Referendum question.

It will be labeled as “Question One”, a proposed amendment to the state constitution.  And if you read it, you’ll see no mention of the word “lockbox”.  But that’s what it is about:  putting money for transportation in a special place where it can only be spent on that intended purpose… transportation.

Until now the state’s Special Transportation Fund has been a sieve, raided by Democrats and Republicans alike, to balance the state’s budget.  This measure would help stop that.

To make it onto the November ballot, Question One was approved on a bipartisan basis by two legislative sessions.  By making it a constitutional amendment instead of a law, it will be harder to circumvent, but not impossible.

This Lockbox question is not perfect.  It has loopholes.  But if it passes, doom on any lawmaker or Governor who tries to avoid voters’ clear intent:  to keep money for transportation spent on just that.

The “Vote Yes on Question One” coalition has wide support, especially from commuters who are tired of seeing our state’s bridges crumble and near-constant delays on standing-room-only trains.  Even if you don’t ride our trains or buses, you should care about this issue.  It’s your tax dollars (gasoline taxes especially) that have been misspent to the tune of $500 million in the past decade.

But suddenly, Republicans are wavering in their support of this Lockbox, though they initially proposed it.  They say it’s not good enough, that it should be tighter and have stronger constraints both on funding and spending.

I might agree.  But the November ballot question is what it is.  It cannot be changed until the next legislative session.  If anyone thinks the lockbox should be stronger, make it so… but only after this version is made law.

Question One’s proposal is not perfect.  But to reject is to maintain the status quo, leaving transportation funding subject to misappropriation as in decades past.  That’s why I’m voting yes on Question One.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

October 27, 2018

"Getting There" - Gridlock on Transportation in the Governor's Race

Have you been following the campaign for Governor?  I have, and I’m deeply disappointed.  Almost none of them is talking about transportation.

How can we create jobs, stop people from moving out of state, encourage entrepreneurs or do anything to save our economy when we are in a literal and political gridlock?  How much time do you waste in bumper to bumper traffic getting to or from work?  How many delays have you had on Metro-North, where on-time performance is at a new low?

Why isn’t this an issue?

Sure, they pay it lip-service.  Ned Lamont talks about tolls on trucks… quite a switch from his earlier support of state-wide car tolling.  I guess the polls beat out tolls when he saw how unpopular tolls were.  But using trucks as a funding scapegoat? Sure, why not?  Everybody hates trucks.

On the rails, Lamont promises Wi-Fi on Metro-North, but no mention of increased parking, more railcars for overcrowding or keeping fares down.  Gee, he didn’t even promise a return of the bar cars.  You missed that one, Ned.

As for Bob Stefanowksi, he’s clearly in the “tolls are a tax” camp.  But it’s so much easier to know what he’s against than what he’s for.  He’s been eluding the media except for a couple of debates and has subjected himself to little campaign scrutiny, aside from fund raising.  Ask him about any topic and he’ll remind you that a) Dan Malloy is the cause of all our problems, and b) he has the solutions, though he never explains what they are.  He pivots from question to sound-bite like a whirling top.

Just who are these guys?

Lamont served as a Selectman in Greenwich but Stefanowski has never held elected office.  In fact, Stefanowski wasn’t even a legal resident of Connecticut for eight years of the last 10 years and didn’t bother to vote for 17 years. How can he say he cares about running Connecticut without participating in the process? 

Lamont’s greatest political credential is running, over and over again, for everything from the US Senate to Governor.  Hey, at least he tried.

What Lamont and Stefanowski have in common is that they are multi-millionaire business men who have plowed much of their fortunes into funding their campaigns. They’re quick to remind you they are businessmen, not politicians.

And therein lies the problem.

Running a state government is not like running a business.  You may be Governor, but you’re not the CEO of a state.  You have to work with a legislature, not a Board of Directors (whose members you probably hand-picked).  Haven’t we learned by the example of the Trump administration’s chaos that it’s folly to assume a businessman can govern?

But there’s another serious candidate we must not forget, though he too is just another businessman with no election track record.

Oz Griebel is running as the no-party candidate and this guy does have transportation experience.  He was the first Chairman of the Transportation Strategy Board in 2001, and you’ve got him to thank for the new cars on Metro-North.  Sadly, many of the TSB’s ideas were never implemented before Gov Malloy shut it down, but of the “three-businessmen-of-the-apocalypse” who want to be Governor, Griebel is hands-down the best on transportation.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

October 22, 2018

"Getting There" - The High Speed Ferry to Nova Scotia

There is perhaps no more beautiful part of the East Coast than the Canadian Maritimes… the provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.

The problem is that getting there is a hassle… either an expensive flight with a change of planes or a two-day drive.  That is, unless you take “The Cat”, the high speed car and passenger ferry which runs daily from Portland ME to Yarmouth NS.

But catch it soon, because it will soon moving farther away.

“The Cat” is a 1646 ton, high-speed catamaran owned by the US Navy but leased to Bay Ferries, the Canadian operator of the vessel (staffed with a US crew).  Launched in 2007, it used to run between the Hawaiian islands of Oahu and Maui.

The 349 foot long vessel can cross the Gulf of Maine’s 213 mile span in about five and a half hours at a top speed of 35 knots (40 mph), carrying 866 passengers and 282 cars.  She sails each morning from Nova Scotia at 8:30 am, arriving in Portland about 1 pm.  The return voyage leaves at 2:30 pm, arriving in Yarmouth 9’ish.  En route passengers can enjoy two bars, free movies, comfy first-class airline seating and a variety of food and shopping.

Ferry service between Portland and Nova Scotia has run since 1970, but the older vessels required an overnight crossing, allowing passengers to enjoy cabins (if they weren’t spending the night gambling in the on-board casino).  Locals in Maine still wax nostalgic about the “Scotia Prince”, the last slow speed ferry to make the overnight crossing.

But the current fast-ferry has found a new clientele, drawing customers from Boston, Providence and as far away as NYC.  Their market research says passengers are upper income with 75% of them coming from the US.

“The Cat” isn’t cheap.  A car with two passengers costs over $400 one way in peak season, though discounts are available for seniors and at off-peak times.  Nova Scotia residents get a $100 discount, given that the province subsidizes Bay Ferries to the tune of $7.5 million US per year.

The province is probably getting its money’s worth as Bay Ferries says its average customer spends 11 days driving through the Maritimes, staying in hotels and enjoying the great seafood.  With the exchange rate giving the US dollar a 30% premium, that can still add up to a lot of lobster.

But now Bay Ferries is threatening to pull out of Portland and depart instead from Bar Harbor ME, another three hours’ drive up the coast.  The company says it would cut the crossing time to three hours and save 40% on its fuel.

“The Cat” used to run on weekdays from Bar Harbor and weekends from Portland, but the company prefers one embarkation point and a less confusing schedule.  And they say they’re not worried about losing customers, noting that 3.5 million people visit Acadia National Park in Bar Harbor each year.

Locals in Bar Harbor were initially less enthusiastic about the ferry as the small town already sees as many as three cruise ships each day.  It looks like St Thomas VI, but with pine trees, it’s so crowded.

But days after the last sailing of “The Cat” for this season from Portland, Bar Harbor inked a deal with Bay Ferries to start service from their town in June 2019.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.

October 13, 2018

"Getting There" - Pilot Shortage Looming

International aviation is about to face a crisis:  a shortage of pilots.

Domestically we are already seeing regional carriers (which represent 42% of all passengers) having to cancel flights and eliminate service to smaller cities.  And in Australia the biggest carrier, Qantas, is pulling old 747’s out of mothballs because it doesn’t have enough qualified pilots for its 737’s, the most dominate (and much more fuel efficient) aircraft in its fleet.

Europe’s biggest airline, Ryanair, had to cancel thousands of flight last November because of inadequate staffing.  And Japanese airlines are so desperate for pilots they are raising the mandatory retirement age to 67.  In China’s booming aviation market airlines are luring experienced captains with salaries starting at $500,000 including signing bonuses.

That’s attracting US pilots who are also offered free business-class flights home to America every three weeks to see their families.

Stateside the number of active commercial aviators dropped by 30,000 from 2008 to 2016 just as US airlines started enjoying a resurgence.  In Canada they estimate that 1000 of that small country’s pilots are now flying for overseas airlines, which offer better pay.

Even the US military is feeling the pain with the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps suffering a 25% reduction in fighter pilot staffing.  It costs $3 - $11 million to train a single fighter pilot.  So where are they going?  To the commercial airlines, especially overseas.

Boeing tells us the international aviation market will need 637,000 more pilots in the next 20 years as air traffic doubles.  But where will these pilots be found?

Aside from the military, it’s been small domestic airlines that have been the traditional training ground for big US airlines.  But after a series of crashes, the FAA changed the rules in 2010 to require pilots to have 1500 hours of flight time before they can step up to the big time.  Now the US DOT is thinking of reducing that minimum.

Just a few years ago, regional carriers paid their pilots as little as $20,000 a year.  The hours were long and the rewards few.  The popular joke among small airline pilots was: 

What’s the difference between a pilot and a pizza?  A pizza can feed a family of four.

Today the starting pay at the regionals is closer to $50,000.  Still, those recruits need extensive, expensive training that costs triple what it used to cost in the 1990’s.  Graduates of the aviation colleges are starting their careers with up to $300,000 in student loans to pay off.

Now even flight instructors are in short supply.  So too are DFE’s, designated flight examiners, who conduct mandatory “check rides” for pilot applicants who now must schedule those “driving tests” up to six months in advance.

The use of simulators instead of actual in-air flight time may help trainees, though some suggest would-be pilots should start as early as high school in programs such as the US Air Force’s Junior ROTC.

Bottom line:  until more pilots are properly trained, certified and paid a competitive wage the pilot shortage will mean we will continue to see cuts in regular service, especially to smaller airports.  “Getting There”, if it’s not a big city, will be inconvenient and expensive, if at all possible.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.


Enjoying the heatwave this summer?  The electric utilities sure are.  And just wait ‘til you get your next bill.   They’ve been warning us...