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July 11, 2019

"Getting There" - Airlines That Are No More

Rail fans call them “fallen flags”… railroads that are no more, like the original New Haven and New York Central Railroads.  But before I start getting all misty eyed, let’s also pay homage to airlines that have flown away into history.

Like PEOPLExpress, the domestic discount airline which flew out of Newark’s grungy old North Terminal starting in 1981.  Fares were dirt cheap, collected on-board during the flight and checked bags cost you $3.00.  You even had to pay for sodas and snacks.  The airline expanded too fast, even adding a 747 to its fleet for $99 flights to Brussels, and was eventually merged with Continental under its rapacious Chairman Frank Lorenzo, later banished from the industry by the Department of Transportation.

There were any number of smaller, regional airlines that merged or just folded their wings, including MohawkNortheastSoutheast, MidwayL’ExpressIndependence AirAir CaliforniaPSA and a personal favorite, Midwest Express, started by the Kimberly Clark paper company to shuttle employees between its mills and headquarters in Milwaukee.

Midwest flew DC-9’s, usually fitted with coach seats in a 2-and-3 configuration, but equipped instead with business-class 2-and-2 leather seats.  Meals were free and included fresh baked chocolate chip cookies.

We all probably remember the fallen giants like TWA (acquired by American Airlines), Eastern Airlines (also gobbled up by Lorenzo), Braniff (which even flew a chartered Concorde at one point between Washington DC and Dallas TX) and Pan American (which was the US’s semi-official overseas airline for decades).

And let’s not forget more recent carriers like Continental, merged with United Airlines in 2012 or US Airways (previously known as Allegheny Airlines) which was taken over by American Airlines in 2015.  Or how about the old Northwest Orient which Delta took over in 2008?  I especially remember flying AmericaWest before its 2005 merger with USAir.

And then there were the name-change carriers, like ValueJet which rebranded as AirTran after a deadly crash in the Florida Everglades in 1996 following a series of maintenance and safety issues.  A 1982 crash of an Air Florida jet taking off in a Washington DC snowstorm quickly grounded that airline for financial reasons.

Anyone remember the Trump Shuttle, successor to Eastern Airlines’ Boston – LaGuardia – DC hourly service?  It only flew for three years but innovated such in-flight technology as GTE’s Airphone.  You could even rent laptops for use in-flight.

But did you know that the cruise ship line Carnival once had its own airline of the same name?  Its fleet of 25 jets funneled passengers to their ships in Fort Lauderdale until 1997 when Pan Am took it over, only to itself go belly-up months later.

Another quirky little airline was MGM Grand Air which flew JFK to LA in an all first-class, luxury configuration. There were swiveling lounge seats, private cabins, an onboard chef and even in-flight fax machines. Their 727 carried only 33 passengers and operated out of a private terminal at LAX, making it very popular with camera-shy celebrities. One way fares were $1400.

But did you know that there was also a Hooters Air, modeled after the restaurant chain of the same name? From 2003 to 2006 the seven plane fleet featured business class seating at low fares and in-flight meals served by, you guessed it, tight t-shirt clad Hooters Girls. The restaurant chain is still going, but the airline folded after $40 million in losses.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

July 05, 2019

"Getting There" - Should You Fly or Drive ?

Going on vacation this summer?  If so, the question is… how to travel: drive, take the train or fly? (I’m eliminating the bus option because, well, life is too short to endure that kind of misery.  I have no problems with commuting by bus, but a ten hour ride is not going to happen!).

In most cases the choice depends on how far you’re traveling and what your budget allows. For trips of 300 miles or less, the train is my first choice… assuming it goes where I want.  In the Northeast, Amtrak service is frequent, convenient and affordable.  But to other destinations, not so much.

But it also depends on how many are in your ‘party’ (and traveling with your family is always a party, right?), because traveling as a family of four can add up, especially when each member needs a ticket.  Even going into New York City can be cheaper by car (including tolls and parking) than on Metro-North when you have three or more people.

Flying is faster, but maybe not if you include all of the door-to-door time:  driving to the airport, arriving two or three hours before departure, checking your bags, going through security, then after arrival at your destination grabbing your bags, finding your rental car, driving to your destination.  In most cases by train you go from city-center to city-center.  And by car, well you get to determine where you’re going.

By train you get to see the country.  But so too with driving.  Train travel is pretty stress-free.  Not so with driving, and certainly not in flying.

In about eight hours you can drive 400+ miles, even with pit-stops.  If two drivers can share the behind-the-wheel duties, a full 12-hour day’s worth of driving can easily get you 700 miles.  That’s almost the distance to Chicago or maybe Atlanta.  But staying alert can really take its strain, so be sure to take frequent breaks and caffeinate.

Of course, having kids on board can complicate things… more stops, more whining.  “No, we’re not there yet!  Play with your Gameboy.”

If you’re confused about the fly-drive value calculations, there’s a great website that can help:  the Be Frugal Fly or Drive Calculator.  Plug in the information… origin, destination, make and model of car, driving hours… and voila!  The app will figure the cost for both alternatives, even including highway tolls and your car’s MPG.  Mind you, gas prices are heading up this summer, so factor that in too.

The final issue is safety.  You do want to arrive alive, right?

It used to be on airlines that after you landed the flight attendant would say something like “The safest part of your journey has just ended, so drive safely”.  Statistically, that’s true.

Federal safety stats say that one person dies for every 100 million vehicle miles traveled.  (Interestingly, Connecticut’s statistics are lower than the national average). Still, there are a lot more highway crashes than air disasters. In 2018 there were no fatalities on US commercial flights and worldwide, only one fatal accident for every 300 million flights.

The National Safety Council says you have one chance in 114 of dying in an automobile crash, but only one chance in 9821 of dying on a flight.  You’re eight times likelier to die by drowning on vacation.

Thanks to the stronger US economy a lot more people will be taking a vacation this summer.  A little planning and you should be able to save time and money.  So bon voyage!

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

June 27, 2019

"Getting There" - Why Nobody Trusts Hartford

Nobody trusts Hartford.  If cynicism is a disease, we’re in the midst of an epidemic.
Since last fall I’ve been touring the state speaking to groups large and small about Connecticut’s transportation crisis… about the $5 billion we need to just get Metro-North back in a state of good repair… about the hundreds of deficient bridges and potholed highways … and about the futility of depending mostly on the gasoline tax to fund long-needed repairs.
And when I got to the part in my talk pitching what I see as the necessity of tolls, safeguarded in the recently approved Special Transportation (STF) Lockbox, most audiences turned on me.  While there were a few true-believers who trust in the state’s role in keeping our transportation in a state of good repair, the vast majority in my audiences don’t believe that the STF is truly locked. 
“There’s no way that toll money won’t be misused.  It’s just another taxing mechanism. You’re nuts if you trust those idiots,” was the gist of their comments.  And maybe they’re right.
Governor Lamont flip-flopped on his campaign promise to only toll trucks.  Then he was brazen enough (in front of reporters!) to tell the Democrats’ caucus that he would help raise them campaign money if they’d support tolling.
He even tried to win over Greenwich Republican representatives by suggesting he wouldn’t toll the Merritt Parkway if they’d give him their votes for tolls… without really considering what that would do to Parkway traffic diverting off of I-95 to avoid tolls.
He also manufactured a funding crisis for the STF by halving earlier plans to place the car sales tax in that fund.
Meanwhile, the anti-toll forces filled the news vacuum winning wide popular support, gathering 100,000 petition signatures in opposition to tolling.  For that grassroots effort they deserve credit just as the policy amateurs in the Governor’s office deserve scorn.
Tolling will be debated in a special session of the legislature in the coming weeks but even the Democratic majority admits it only has a “50-50 chance” of passage. Still, in the race to adjournment June 6th, lawmakers did somehow find time to pass some crazy bills.
Like the one approving a study of burying I-95 in a tunnel from Greenwich to Bridgeport.  Never mind that we don’t have money to fix our bridges. Now lawmakers want to waste money on an impossible, multi-billion dollar “big dig” along the Gold Coast?
They also had time to stuff the budget full of hard-to-find special-funding “rats”, like $60,000 for the New London Little League or $37,000 for a New Haven Scout troop. They couldn’t find time to vote on healthcare, online gaming or marijuana, but succeeded in stuffing pork in every crack and crevice of the sure-to-pass budget.
One issue that did survive was SB 876 which would invest $10 million in bonding to improve the state’s rail freight system… the eight small freight railroads left in our state operating on infrastructure up to 100 years old.  That bill should be passed.  But $10 million?  That’s chump-change, a rounding error in most CDOT projects.
The post-election glow of optimism about a new Governor with a vision for the future is gone, replaced by the reality of an inept, dysfunctional legislature that just doesn’t care. 
The skeptics are right and I too have succumbed to the epidemic of cynicism.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

June 24, 2019

"Getting There" - Confessions of a Metro-North Engineer

“Bobby” has every kid’s dream job:  he’s an engineer for Metro-North.  But “Bobby” isn’t his real name because he’s asked for anonymity so he can speak candidly about his work.

“I used to love this job,” he says.  “But I still take pride in it.  Not just anybody can drive a train safely and smoothly.”

Bobby has worked for the railroad for over 20 years.  Engineers start at $32 an hour, climbing to $46 after eight years. He says Metro-North receives thousands of applications each month for a handful of job openings.  After randomizing applicants’ resumes the railroad puts candidates through extensive background checks and, if finally hired, they enter a 15 to 18 month training program.

The “rule book” for being an engineer is daunting, requiring them to know every aspect of the railroad’s locomotives and rail cars’ systems to memorizing hundreds of miles of tracks and signals on all three lines.

Right now the railroad has something like 500 engineers (the folks who run the trains) and 900 conductors and assistant-conductors (trainmen).  Before every run the crew meets for a safety briefing and review of train order bulletins:  where the speed restrictions are, which stations operate with bridge plates, etc.

In a typical day the engineer and conductor work as a team all day with assistant-conductors rotating through.  They’re all paid by the hour and can do maybe 4 or 5 runs a day if their assignment is New Haven to Grand Central.  If they have a layover between runs they get three-quarters pay.  Anything over 8 hours is time-and-a-half overtime.  So are worked holidays.

Twice a year, when the timetables change, all the assignments are rearranged based on seniority.  First pick goes to the engineer with the most seniority (33 years on the job) which means the last-hired pick up the crumbs… nights and weekends.

If he volunteers to be on the “Extra-Board” Bobby can be called in on as little as two hours’ notice to work, challenging his family life.

“The benefits are excellent,” he says, including medical and dental coverage, 12 paid holidays, a dozen sick days and up to five weeks paid vacation per year.  Spouses also get a free railroad pass, but not employees’ kids.

Safety is always Bobby’s top priority but he does feel pressure to keep running on-time.  Even when he’s ordered to run slower for safety reasons, he risks being called into the office on arrival at Grand Central if he’s really late.  And he’s also not a fan of the new TV cameras in his cab monitoring his every move.

“But I get it.  As engineer I’m responsible for up to a thousand passengers, entrusted by the railroad with millions of dollars of equipment,” he says.

When an eight-car train is taken out of service and he has to run a six-car replacement, he knows conditions will be standing-room-only and passengers will be upset.  “We’re just told (by our bosses) to do the best we can.”  But he doesn’t enjoy seeing the angry gestures (and one finger salutes) from passengers on the platform when he pulls into a station 15 minutes late.

“I just wish that the passengers knew how much is involved in running a railroad,” instead of taking out their anger on the crew.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

June 09, 2019

"Getting There" - Why the Shaming of Bus Riders?

Why do many people have such scorn for those who take the bus?

Forty-one million trips are taken on 12,000 public buses each year in Connecticut in communities across the state (not counting school buses).  Yet, those riders are regarded as losers, not by the transit operators, but by those who drive by car.

When Southington was recently considering restoring bus service for the first time since 1969, a local resident wrote a letter to the local paper declaring “Towns that have bus service are towns that frankly have a lesser quality of people.”

Really?  “Lesser quality”, how?   Because they can’t afford to own a car?  Or because they are minorities?  That comment is either racist or classist or both.

As I wrote recently, the Greater Bridgeport Transit bus system carries 18,000 passengers every day (5.2 million a year), 90% of them either going to school or work.  Something like 26% of all Bridgeport train riders got to or from the station by bus.

Sure, some are non-white or non-English speaking.  But why begrudge them transportation?  You’d rather they not have a job or an education?

And yes, their fares are kept low with state subsidies.  But their incomes are also low and for them even a $1.75 bus fare is expensive.  Remember… Metro-North trips (26.5 million per year), though also expensive (the highest in the US), are also subsidized.

But the biggest target of transit scorn is CTfastrak, the four year old, 9.4 mile long dedicated BRT (bus rapid transit) system running between Hartford and New Britain. Transit planners from across the country come to study CTfastrak. The Feds are looking to spend $665 million on similar systems across the US.

Yet Connecticut Republicans were trying to close it before it even began. 

When it first opened in 2014 the CDOT projected 16,000 daily riders.  To date the ridership is closer to 11,400.  Fares are cheap ($1.75 round-trip) and service is frequent with buses departing every few minutes. From New Britain to downtown Hartford it’s only 20 minutes, even at rush hour.  That’s about half the time you’d spend on I-84 stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

From the dedicated bus-only right-of-way, buses can also transfer to local roads into downtown Hartford and communities ranging from New Britain and Bristol to Cheshire and Waterbury.  The stations are clean and modern and the buses even offer free Wi-Fi… something we still don’t (and probably never will) have on Metro-North.

Critics complain about “empty buses” riding up and down the system.  Sure, the buses may not be jammed like Metro-North on a summertime Friday, but they do carry thousands every day.  Imagine if those bus riders were in cars.  How’d you like the traffic then?

Why the scorn for bus riders?  Beyond racism and class-warfare, I think there’s actually some jealousy.  Why do they get a fast, clean, cheap ride when I’m stuck in traffic?  Well, for some it’s a matter of necessity:  they don’t own or have access to a car.  For others, as with train riders, it’s a matter of choice:  they prefer the bus for speed and convenience.

So can we please stop shaming bus riders?  Like all of us, they have places to go, so let’s just allow them to ride in peace and harmony.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

May 30, 2019

"Getting There" - The Merritt Parkway Monorail

What is this fascination that people have with monorails?  I can’t tell you how often people suggest them as “the answer” to our state’s clogged roads and rails.
“Why don’t we build a monorail down the middle of The Merritt Parkway?,” asked an architect at a recent meeting.  To my astonishment, such an idea was once studied!
As lore has it, back in the mid-1980’s local tech giant Sikorsky was asked by CDOT if a monorail could be built and a plan was submitted.  Sure, such a system could be built, they concluded, but where would you put the stations and the necessary parking? 
The Merritt Parkway
Since hearing of this white-whale of a tale, shared by Merritt Parkway Conservancy Executive Director Wes Haynes, I have been on a relentless search for details of the proposal, but I’ve come up empty.  Sikorsky has no record of the plan.  CDOT said “Huh?”

Digging through the archives of the Stamford Advocate I found articles from 1985 discussing the idea:  a $700 million monorail down the median of the Merritt Parkway from Greenwich to Trumbull as an alternative to Bridgeport developer Francis D’Addario’s idea of widening the parkway to eight lanes… or double-decking I-95.
Motorists were surveyed and CDOT apparently spent $250,000 for a study.
The amazing research librarians at the State Library dug through their dusty files and came up with a CDOT report from 1987 pooh-poohing the idea, not only on grounds of impracticality but because it would compete with existing rail service.  Heavens no!
But again… why this obsession with monorails?  I think people have been spending too much time at Disneyworld.
In 1998 a monorail was once proposed for Hartford, connecting downtown to Rentschler Field in East Hartford.  It was to cost only $33 million and the cost was supposedly to be paid by the Feds.  It never happened.  The idea was revived again in 2006 when the Adriaen’s Landing convention complex was opened, but again, nothing.
A pseudo-monorail “People Mover” system was built at Hartford’s Bradley Airport in 1976 connecting the remote parking to the main terminal, all of seven-tenths of a mile away.  The fixed-guideway system, with cars designed by Ford Motor Company, cost $4 million but 
Bradley Airport People Mover
never operated because the $250,000 annual operating was cost was deemed impractical.  In 1984 it was dismantled, though you can still see one of the original cars at the Connecticut Trolley Museum in East Windsor.
Whatever your fantasies are about space-age travel by monorail, let me dispel your dreams with some facts.
Monorails are not fast.  The Disneyworld monorail, built by a Japanese company, has a top speed of 55 mph but usually just averages 40 mph.  Even on a bad day Metro-North can better that.  The 3.9 mile long Las Vegas monorail does about 50 mph shuttling losers from casino to casino.
Monorails are expensive.  The Vegas system, opened in 2004, cost $654 million.  That’s why existing monorails like Disney’s have never been extended.
Monorails are not Maglevs.  Don’t confuse the single-track, rubber-tired monorails with the magnetic-levitation technology in use in Shanghai and being tested for passenger trains in Japan.  The Shanghai maglev can travel over 250 mph, the Japanese test trains have hit 374 mph.
No, monorails are not in Connecticut’s future and are not the answer to our woes.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

May 27, 2019

"Getting There" - Uber for Kids

Hey, all you Soccer Moms out there!  Tired of feeling like an Uber driver for your kids, shuttling them from school to practice, from playdate to home?  Well, I have an answer and an app for you:  VANgo

Launched last year by Connecticut native Marta Jamrozik, a newly minted Stanford MBA named as one of Forbes Magazine’s “30 Under 30” and herself the daughter of a working Mom, the concept is simple:  a rides app for pre-teens and teens with drivers who know about child-care.

“All of our drivers are thoroughly vetted,” says Jamrozik.  “They need to have at least three years of child-care experience, a clean DMV record, undergo a background check, fingerprinting, reference checks and even an inspection of their vehicle.” All drivers have company-provided insurance, too.

Right now VANgo is operating in Fairfield County and Phoenix AZ, but they hope to add two more cities this summer.  Here in Connecticut they have 60 drivers who work part-time, averaging three to five rides a day.  The service is available 6 to 8:30 am and from 2 to 10:30 pm, shuttling kids aged ten to eighteen from place to place.

Rides can be booked up to two weeks in advance or on as little as four hours notice.  When the booking is accepted both parents and the kids receive a text with confirmation including the name of the driver, a photo, description of the car and ratings info on the driver.

Local trips start at $17 with a $2 discount for recurring trips.  Pricing, says Jamrozik, is based on distance and time with the “vast majority” of the fee going to the driver.

“Our pricing is about 15% higher than Uber and Lyft,” she says but emphasizes that VANgo drivers are experienced with child care:  85% of them are Moms.  But so far all the drivers are women… teachers, babysitters, nannies etc.

Unlike Uber, there is no “surge pricing”, raising rates when demand is unusually high.  Tipping is allowed, via the app, and all charges are direct to the parents’ credit card so the young riders don’t have to carry cash.

One Mom from Pound Ridge NY who uses VANgo to get her kids to school in New Canaan every day says she loves the service.  She has three kids on varying schedules and has to commute to Fairfield herself, so she tried to find a nanny who’d drop and pick-up her kids for five hours a week, but nobody wanted the split-shift gig.

She says the drivers are great and she’s reassured in knowing they’ve all been checked out.  Booking in advance fits in with everyone’s routine and while she’s at work she gets peace of mind when she receives a text alerting her that her son’s been picked up and is heading home.

The drivers also like the gig.  Fifty-six year old Christina, a grandmother herself, has been driving for nine months and loves the kids… especially their conversations.  She wasn’t interested in driving for Uber doing airport runs and ferrying drunk folks home at 3 am, so VANgo was a perfect fit.

Founder Jamrozik says she may expand the service to include parents and the elderly, but for now she’s happy with the kids as her clients and their parents as customers.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

May 16, 2019

"Getting There" - Where's Joe ?

A good boss cares about his customers.  He wants to keep them happy and actively seeks out their feedback.  Such is not the case at the Connecticut Department of Transportation.

The CDOT’s new Commissioner, Joseph Giulietti, has missed several important opportunities to interface with riders in his first 100 days in office.  Not that he hasn’t been working.  He just hasn’t been meeting with customers.

Remember that Giulietti came to his new job after a stint as President of Metro-North and in that role he held a number of “meet-the-commuter” events, handling himself quite well in answering questions and defusing angry riders.

A year ago, after leaving the railroad, he became a consultant to T Y Lin’s study of how to improve running times on the railroad to achieve the “30-30-30” dream espoused by the Fairfield Business Council’s Joe McGee.  That $400,000 study, using Giulietti’s input, said it could be done.

But if it was going to be so easy to cut running time from Stamford to Grand Central (now 51 minutes at best) to just a half-hour, you’d think he’d have done so as President of the railroad. But he didn’t.

Instead, as of the new timetable, running times were increased by as much as 16 minutes, angering and confusing commuters.  But the Commissioner has been silent.

He did accept an invitation to attend the April 17th meeting of the official Connecticut Commuter Rail Council, only to cancel on short notice.  Council Chairman Jim Gildea says a staffer promised to reschedule but has never called back.

Days later the new timetable came out, including a nasty surprise for Waterbury branch riders.  Their usual 4:42 train from GCT arriving in Bridgeport at 5:58 used to connect to their Waterbury train.  But under the new timetable the Waterbury shuttle leaves four minutes before the NY train arrives.  The next train wouldn’t be for three more hours.
Alternatively, would-be Waterbury riders could make the 6:03 pm Bridgeport connection if they left GCT at 4:11 pm.  Try explaining that to your boss.

How could such a mistake in scheduling be made?  Where was Giulietti?

When the Commuter Council asked for answers, they got excuses.  Not until US Senator Chris Murphy wrote a letter to MNRR was the mistake corrected.

Then, on Thursday April 26th Commissioner Giulietti and Metro-North President Catherine Rinaldi took a train ride.  Last December Hearst reporter Jacqueline Smith had challenged them to ride the Danbury line to see the current conditions.

Accepting the “invitation”, the Giulietti and Rinaldi boarded the post rush-hour 9:05 am train from Danbury, but only after a meet-and-great with that city’s mayor Mark Boughton who must have known they were coming.  At Bethel, First Selectman Matt Knickerbocker came aboard to lobby for transit-oriented-development.

Smith interviewed the pair all the way to South Norwalk and wrote of the trip. But when I asked Smith what had happened when the railroaders talked with commuters, she said they didn’t.  They were too busy being interviewed and lobbied, I guess.

That’s sad.

When they finally had a chance to ride the rails and talk to their customers, Giulietti and Rinaldi turn fact-finding into a PR photo op.

Giulietti’s predecessor as Commissioner, Jim Redeker, was a constant presence in public (and to his employees).  He attended numerous Commuter Council, business group and community meetings.

But where’s Joe?

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.

May 12, 2019

"Getting There" For Profit Mass Transit

Public transportation is a money-losing proposition.  But Connecticut is home to one of the few profitable transit companies in the US.  It’s not CT Transit or Metro-North, both of which are heavily subsidized.  No, the operation that’s squarely in the black is the Bridgeport – Port Jefferson Steamboat Company, a.k.a. “the ferry”.

“If you tried to start this ferry company today, you couldn’t do it,” says the ferry company’s Chief Operating Officer, Fred Hall.  Today’s ferry is a legacy of the 1883 cross-Sound service run by PT Barnum.

Hall has been on the boats since 1976 when he worked weekends as a bartender as a “side-hustle” to his advertising job in New York City.  In those days they used to run a Friday and Saturday night “Rock the Sound” cruise leaving Port Jefferson at 10 pm.  Complete with a live rock band and a lot of drinking (the legal age then was 18), the three hour cruise drew 600 passengers a night.

From there Hall was promoted to General Manager of the Bridgeport terminal, Assistant General Manager and finally to Vice President in charge of the entire operation.  And he thoroughly enjoys his work, commuting from his home on Long Island to inspect the three-vessel fleet several times a week.

He’s not alone:  the ferry carries almost 100 daily walk-on commuters, crossing in both directions, who are an important indicator of the economy’s strength to Hall.  “When the numbers of monthly commuter (at $240 per month) are high, that’s a sign of a weakening jobs market because people have to commute long distances to find work,” he observes.

But for cars carried on the ferry the opposite is true.  “In 2005 we carried 460,000 cars.  In 2018, only 450,000.”  Why?  Because Hall says so many of his repeat customers are using the ferry to get to second homes… beach homes on Long Island or winter ski cabins in New England.

“You can probably fly out West in the winter and get more reliable snow conditions and still save money compared to driving to Vermont,” Hall says of his northbound Long Island customers.

Big changes are coming for the Bridgeport ferry, starting with an annual May fare increase. Tickets which used to be sold onboard “using carnival tickets on a broom handle” are now e-tickets sold and scanned before boarding.  If you’re bringing a car, reservations are a must, especially on weekends.  If you show up without a ticket expect to pay a surcharge, just like on Metro-North.

The ferry company is still working on moving to a new, larger terminal farther east in the harbor, a 19-acre site that will also support a deep-water shipping pier… if the US Army Corps of Engineers dredges the harbor.  But that work is a Catch 22, he says.  “They dredge where there’s shipping traffic.  But that traffic depends on dredging.”

The new, $35 million ferry terminal will save up to eight minutes unloading and loading the ship and allow foot passengers to board using Jetways.  Depending on permits, this new terminal might open in 2020 – 2021.  The ferry company also hopes to add a fourth ferry to its fleet, built in the US and probably costing $30 – 40 million.

But long rumored plans to run additional ferry service from New Haven to Port Jefferson LI probably won’t happen, says Hall.  “We just couldn’t find the land (for a terminal)” in New Haven.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

April 27, 2019

"Getting There" - New Timetable, Slower Trains

Rail commuters on Metro-North got a Spring Surprise recently:  a new timetable with slower running times.  Rush hour trains now leave earlier and arrive later than before, adding anywhere from one to ten minutes to published running times, depending on the length of the trip.

But hey!  What happened to that 30-30-30 plan for faster trains?  Why are the trains running slower, not faster?  In a word:  repairs.

There is so much track work to be done this summer there’s no way that Metro-North can maintain its old schedule. In fact, the on-time performance stats from last summer’s construction hit a record low, sometimes hitting just 82%.  Put another way… the new Spring timetable more accurately reflects the speed of service the railroad can actually deliver, not the service it would like to deliver.

So instead of trains running late, they’ll be on time and the schedule will be more reliable, if slower.

All of this timetable adjusting has been in the works since last fall, though the railroad clearly could have done a better job explaining the whys and hows of the changes.  Big projects like the Atlantic Street bridge replacement in Stamford and the Walk Bridge project in Norwalk are taking one, and in some cases, two tracks out of service.

Necessary “undercutting”, removing years of accumulated rock ballast under rail ties, can take out a track for weeks at a time.  And all four running tracks will eventually need that undercutting work.

That leaves the railroad trying to run a four-track service with a 25 – 50% reduction in resources.  And that, as their computer simulations have shown, means slower service. And all of this assumes nothing else goes wrong.

If there’s an unexpected broken rail, a signal problem or power issue, the railroad will jump on repairs immediately -  causing other delays on top of the planned work.  In other words, it’s going to be a long summer, folks.

And this is just the beginning.  One industry insider tells me these mega-repair projects will continue for about five years, meaning these slower running times will be the new normal.

And the farther east you live on the New Haven line, the greater the impact of the slower trains.  Take Bridgeport, for example.

The current best running time from Bridgeport to Grand Central is one hour and 22 minutes.  Under the new timetable it will be one hour and 29 minutes.  But in 1963 the old New Haven RR could make the run in one hour and 14 minutes.

Why?  Because the original New Haven RR was well maintained.  Today the railroad is 56 years older and not aging well.  The signal system is well past its life expectancy (and can handle speeds no faster than 70 mph).  The overhead power lines (catenary) still dates from the times of Woodrow Wilson in some areas.  And the tracks, as we know are prone to cracking and expansion in the summer heat.

Safety should always be the top priority.  Remember the Bridgeport derailment and Spuyten Duyvil crash?  So if your trains take a few more minutes to get you to work, be grateful:  at least you got there safely.  I’d always prefer to arrive alive, wouldn’t you?

Things will get better.  Maybe not 30-30-30, but better… eventually.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

April 21, 2019

"Getting There" - Your Turn to Share The Heat

 As I hope you can tell, I love writing this column.  As New York Times columnist Thom Friedman once said, a commentator should be both in the heating business and the lighting business… getting people fired up while providing factual support for his arguments.

Well, the “heat” runs both ways, as the comments I receive each week constantly remind me. For reasons best known to my bosses at Hearst, anonymous comments are allowed to be posted on the website version of my column.    Here are a few recent love notes from your fellow readers:

When I wrote recently about the power failures on Metro-North, cantchangestupid  wrote  “I sure hope a thorough investigation gets done on why those transformers failed. I see sabotage as the democratic conclusion.”  Gee.  And I thought I was cynical.

Or how about this gem from StaggerLee:  “Am I the only one who thinks Jim Cameron is a Useful Id-yot put out there to enable the spendthrift DemocRATs doing their best to drive the state's economy into the ground?”  You’re not alone StaggerLee.  Your colorfully named (yet anonymous) friends say that a lot, though it is not true.

On the recently approved “lock box” on the Special Transportation Fund, NotMyProblem opined:  “The current Gov already figured out how to get around the lockbox by simply diverting funds before they made it into the lockbox.”  That’s true, as I pointed out in a recent column.

On Twitter rpm4Liberty noted that Metro-North fares, though the highest of any commuter railroad in the US, don’t cover the operating costs but require a state subsidy.  He noted: “my truck starts every morning when I want it to, and I don’t need roads.”  Wow… a flying truck?

And Grizzly Beer Bear adds: “So is it wrong (to ask) the people who use this 18th century form of transportation to pay for it?  For that money you could BUY A CAR and not steal money from people who will NEVER use the rail service.”  Obviously Mr Bear enjoys driving in bumper to bumper traffic and wants to add to it by pricing rail riders off trains and back into their cars. 

For April Fools’ Day I tweeted a picture of a railroad dome car, soon to be added to Metro-North service, noting that the ride may not be fast but it sure would be scenic.  A few followers thought the news was true, but one guy who got the joke commented “When the train derails from lack of PTC you're already halfway outside!”

Much of the email I get is commuters just asking for help:  where to complain about late trains, how to report uncollected tickets on a crowded train or asking about the lack of station parking.  I’m always glad to direct people where to get answers.

Having been at this commuter advocacy mission for awhile, I occasionally even get a note of thanks.  Christian N recently emailed me that his commute never seems to improve, adding “I am losing all hope. But thanks for your advocacy.  You deserve to go to heaven.”
That final train ride, I answered, would probably be on a local train, running late, but oh so scenic.

Keep your letters and Tweets coming my way: and @CTRailcommuters.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media