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


In my college days I did some strange stuff… like driving all night from Chicago to NYC, hitting 75 mph on Interstate 80, just me and the tr...