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February 16, 2019

"Getting There" - Commuting by Ferry

Why can’t we run commuter ferries on Long Island Sound? 

I can’t tell you how often I’ve been asked that question.  But as with so many “simple solutions” to our transportation woes, there are logical reasons why ferry boats won’t work.

First off, they are too slow.  Even “fast ferries” can only make about 30 knots (35 mph) in open waters, half the (potential) speed of a train.  And to dock at downtown areas in major cities like New Haven, Bridgeport, Norwalk and Stamford, they’d have to sail up rivers and inlets with 5 knot speed limits.  That really slows down the ride.

If we put ferry terminals closer to the Sound we’d be eating into the most expensive water-view real estate we have.  And how would you get there?  By car, parking where?  By shuttle bus, taking how long?

We’d need dozens of ferries to compete with Metro-North’s fleet.  At rush hour on the railroad there’s a train every 20 minutes to Grand Central.  There isn’t a ferry service in the US that can offer that frequency.  Would you be willing to wait an hour if you miss the boat?

On a beautiful day a ferry ride to work sounds like fun.  But how about in a winter storm?  You’d be back on the dependable ol’ train in a heartbeat.

Even the few operators who’ve considered launching ferry service in Connecticut say it would come with fares at least twice those of Metro-North.  Aren’t people complaining already about the trains being too expensive?

Fast ferry boats are gas guzzlers, the aquatic equivalent to the Concorde.  Even when the Pequots built high-speed catamarans to ferry gamblers to their casino to lose money, it cost them a fortune.  Those ferries are still dry-docked, too expensive to operate.

When a private ferry operator offered service from Glen Cove, Long Island to midtown, it lasted only a few months.  Same thing when ferry service was offered on the Hudson River from Yonkers.  Why?  Because both routes paralleled existing train service and the ferries couldn’t compete.  Neither would it work here in Connecticut where Metro-North operates.

Mind you, there are places that ferries do work, especially where they go from point A to point B when you can’t do that on land.  Like the Bridgeport – Port Jefferson or New London to Orient Point (LI) cross-Sound ferries.  Or consider Seattle, where ferries connect downtown with island suburbs.

A ferry from Connecticut to LaGuardia Airport might make sense. But in the late 80’s when Pan Am tried to compete with Eastern Airlines in the lucrative air-shuttle market, they introduced the Pan Am Water Shuttle connecting LaGuardia to midtown.  I rode it once, on a bright summer’s day, and it was sweet.  But even funneling passengers to its own planes, Pan Am couldn’t afford the aquatic connection.  And since Amtrak’s Acela came along, who flies the shuttles anyway?

One final reason why I don’t think ferries would work:  nobody else does so either. 

I’m sure that ferry operators in NYC have looked at Connecticut’s gold coast, crunched the numbers and backed away.  It’s a free market, folks.  If ferries made sense (and dollars), they’d be running here by now.  But they aren’t, and probably won’t be, for the common sense reasons I have cited.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media


February 09, 2019

"Getting There" - Why 30-30-30 Doesn't Add Up

How would you like a faster ride on Metro-North?  Who wouldn’t!  How about a 30 min ride from Hartford to New Haven, from New Haven to Stamford or from Stamford to Grand Central?

That’s the vision announced by Governor Lamont in his inaugural address.  It’s known as the 30-30-30 plan and sounds good compared to current running times (52 minutes, 55 minutes and 48 minutes respectively).  But how can such vast improvements be done?  Ask Joe McGee, VP of the Fairfield Business Council who’s been pitching this idea for years.

So confident was McGee of this concept that his Council recently paid $400,000 to Ty Lin Consulting of San Francisco to study it.  And which railroad expert did Ty Lin hire to spearhead the study?  Joseph Giulietti, former President of Metro-North… recently named as Connecticut’s new Commissioner of Transportation.

Though the Ty Lin study has yet to be released, McGee admits that the 30-30-30 idea is more of a goal than a possibility.  Yet, for as little as $75 - $95 million, Ty Lin thinks significant improvements can be made in speeding up service by accelerating Metro-North’s return to a “state of good repair”.

When he was President of Metro-North, Giulietti said it would take five years to get the railroad back in shape after years of neglect.  Today, Metro-North says a more realistic time frame is ten years.

By fixing rail ties and overhead power lines to improve speeds on curves, by restoring the fourth track east of Milford and by adding express trains (at a premium fare), McGee claims service will improve quickly, maybe shaving 24 minutes off of the current 103 minute running time from New Haven to Grand Central. That would make it a 79 minute run, but not 60.

But wait.  If this was Giulietti’s idea as a consultant, why didn’t he make that happen when he was running Metro-North?  Or how will he now, as Commissioner of the CDOT, get his old railroad to adopt Ty Lin’s (his) ideas?  I asked, but he isn’t saying.

What seasoned professionals at CDOT have told me is that the Ty Lin ideas will cost billions of dollars and take a decade. In other words… there’s no quick, cheap fix.

Meantime, Metro-North is planning to add six to ten minutes of running time to all New Haven line trains for the spring timetable to better reflect the reality of current delays due to work.  For 2018 the railroad had only 88% on time performance (OTP).  By extending the train schedule on paper, OTP will go up and riders will have a more dependable, albeit slower, ride.

Lengthening running times, even on paper, “is not acceptable,” says McGee who hopes to release his Ty Lin study in about two weeks, fully expecting huge pushback from the railroad and east-coast consultants beholden to the MTA.

But it’s really the FRA (the Federal Railroad Administration) that’s the biggest block to faster trains.  The slower speeds they required after the 2013 Bridgeport and Spuyten Duyvil derailments won’t be raised until they’re convinced the railroad is safe. 

So let the debate begin:  is 30-30-30 possible or just a fantasy?   Did Giulietti create himself a nightmare in proposing as a consultant what he may not be able to deliver as CDOT Commissioner? 

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

February 03, 2019

"Getting There" - Confessions of a Road Warrior



What idiot said that “getting there is half the fun”?

That’s the thought that went through my mind awhile back when I did a “day trip” to LA:  two door-to-door 10-hour trips just for a three-hour face-to-face meeting with my most important consulting client.

I knew my trip was doomed when I went to pick up my rental car at LAX and there were no cars.  Pleading with the dispatcher that I’d been up since 1 am local time and had a crucial meeting I could not be late for, she said “I can give you a mini-van.”  Fabulous!  If it has an engine and wheels, I’ll take it.  Even in LA where people drive their egos, I abandoned my Ferrari persona for a Chevy minivan.

I should have known there was a problem as it was the only vehicle left on the lot, but a road warrior never gives up.  Throwing open the door to the van I was met with the unmistakable odor of vomit.  The vehicle was clean, mind you.  It just reeked.
So, off I drove, windows down and made my meeting on time!  When I returned the van five hours later it still reeked of vomit, but now with a nice overtone of cigar.

Another time a few years back I’d booked the last evening flight from JFK to LAX.  I helicoptered to the airport, arriving just in time to find that the 6 pm flight was delayed due to incoming equipment.  A promised 8 pm departure never happened, and the delays kept coming in 30 minute intervals until it was clear we were going to be on a red-eye.  Worse yet, after all other flights had left, every bar and restaurant in the terminal closed up.

In its generosity, the airline wheeled out some MRE’s (meals ready to eat) from a back closet and we feasted on stale crackers and government surplus cheese, until one passenger took the initiative and picked up the phone.

A half-hour later (and still hours before departure), a pizza delivery-man arrived with ten pies.  “We’re not paying for those,” screamed the airline supervisor.  “We’re not asking you too,” smiled the passenger, who then sold every slice at about $5 apiece.  PS:  We did eventually take off, arriving at LAX about 3 am.

Then there was the time I arrived late one night at Newark airport from a sad trip to see my dying mother.  I had a crucial meeting in central NJ the next morning, so I’d booked the last hotel room within 30 miles at a run-down Howard Johnson’s.

In the dark airport parking lot, I got off the bus at the wrong stop and in a pouring rain (with no coat or umbrella) was soaked by the time I found my car.  God was telling me something.

Digging thru my suitcase, I found the only dry clothing I could safely use to dry off … a pair of underwear.  I drove to Route 287 and an hour later I found my Ho Jo’s motel, tired and hungry, ready for a meal of those famous fried clams and at little ice cream.  No such luck.  The restaurant was closed as were all other eateries within ten miles.  That night dinner consisted of Pop Tarts with a side order of humble pie.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media