August 30, 2019

"Getting There" - Metro-North's Ambassador

Anthony Scasino is an ambassador, not for a foreign country, but for Metro-North.  He doesn’t have a consulate or embassy, just the Stamford Railroad station as his headquarters.

Scasino is one of six Customer Service Ambassadors (CSA) who work at the railroad’s busiest stations… White Plains, Harlem – 125th St, Fordham, New Rochelle, Croton-Harmon and Stamford.  Having passed muster during a six month trial, the program is now permanent and may be expanded.

Scasino has worked for Metro-North for six and a half years, having previously been a ticket agent at Stamford. Now he dons a bright blue and yellow vest emblazoned with “Customer Service” on the back and helps customers in the main concourse and on the platforms.

“I really like helping people,” he says.  “I hold doors open, give people directions… anything they need help with, even their luggage.”

When Scasino starts his shift at 6 am the station is already busy with commuters heading into the city.  Though some have recently complained about the homeless camping out overnight in the waiting area, Scasino says he leaves that issue to the security team and a social services agency, BRC, which is hired by the MTA to get the homeless off the benches and into appropriate shelters.  But a recent report by the Office of the NY State Comptroller says the $14 million spent by MTA on homeless outreach has been a failure.

Unlike Grand Central Terminal which closes each night from 2 to 5:30 am, the Stamford station remains open 24 hours for cleaning and the few passengers catching Amtrak’s overnight trains.

Scasino sees a lot of regular commuters each morning who say hello on their way to the tracks. In one case he actually saved a blind woman on an escalator from a nasty fall.

At some hours there is a lot of crowding on the Stamford platforms as trains arrive, unloading passengers while others wait to board, but Scasino says he’s never seen a problem he thought would prove dangerous.  “Commuters are pretty sharp,” he says.  “They know to stay back from the platform edge.  That’s why we have that yellow warning strip.”

And they know exactly where to position themselves on the platform to be near the train’s door when it opens, giving them quick access to limited seating.

One of the reasons Stamford station needs a CSA is that the station is so confusing and still lacks adequate signage.   For example, there is no local map posted in the station where people can see the station in relation to downtown and how to get there.

Years ago, when Swiss Bank was still active in town I remember seeing nattily dressed businessmen arrive on trains from New York and make their way to the taxi stand.  On entering the cab they’d say ‘Swiss Bank please’ and off they’d go for 2 blocks and about a $10 fare even while the bank’s headquarters were just 250 yards from the station.

Arrive by train at the smallest village in Europe and there’s always a map in the station to guide you.  But not in Stamford.  Still, that isn’t Metro-North’s fault but CDOT’s which owns and runs the station.

Right now Scasino only works a morning shift, but there may be plans to expand the Ambassadors’ coverage to afternoon rush hours and even weekends.  Clearly, the railroad is working hard to improve its image and the service they provide, especially to new riders and visitors.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

"Getting There" - America's First Transcons

How does this sound:  fly coast-to-coast in just 48 hours for only $5200?

That was the pitch for the first commercial, transcon air service in 1929 operated by TAT, Transcontinental Air Transport, much later to become TWA.  Founded by aviation pioneer Clement Melville Keys, the firm worked with Charles Lindbergh to also secure lucrative mail contracts.  But these flights were a first for passengers.

TAT was mocked as “take a train” because their service combined rail and air service to make it from New York to Los Angeles.

Passengers first boarded an overnight train at 6:05 pm from NY’s Penn Station, “the Airways Special”.  This first leg of the journey was to avoid flying over the Allegheny Mountains, known to air mail pilots as “Hells Stretch” due to the winds.

After an overnight journey in their luxury Pullman cars the train arrived at a special rail station at Port Columbus, Ohio’s airport, where they boarded a Ford Tri-Motor.  The small plane had a pilot, co-pilot, steward (always a man) and seated eight or nine passengers. 

The plan flew at 2,500 feet at about 100 mph…. straight through the clouds and rainstorms.

After two hours’ flight the plane made its first (of many) refueling stops in Indianapolis. Sandwiches were brought on board for the next hop, three hours away, in Kansas City.  Then Wichita and finally Waynoka OK.  There the passengers boarded a special TAT bus and were taken to the train station for their second overnight rail journey.  But first came dinner at a purpose-built Harvey House restaurant.

By morning the train arrived in Clovis NM where the passengers were again bused to the nearest airport, Portair NM, where they had breakfast before boarding another plane to continue on to Albuquerque, Winslow and Kingman AZ.  Over the western mountain ranges the Tri-Motor sometimes climbed as high as 8000 feet.

As the cabin was not pressurized, this brought about a lot of ear-popping and teeth chattering as a small onboard heater kept the cabin at no better than about 60 degrees. To treat air sickness caused by the turbulence, stewards passed out slices of lemon.

Finally, at about 6 pm Pacific time, more than 48 hours after leaving New York, these aviation pioneers arrived in Los Angeles.  The one-way fare was $352 (equal to $5200 in today’s dollars), and that was for the cheapest Pullman train accommodation, a lower berth.

Direct train service coast-to-coast in 1930 took three days, so the time savings by air was hard to justify when TAT tickets cost 50% more than luxurious Pullmans by rail.

In its first 18 months in operation, the TAT transcons lost $2.7 million ($41 million in 2019 dollars).  It didn’t help that, to maintain the prestige of flying TAT, each passenger was given a solid gold fountain pen from Tiffany’s.

Then came the stock market crash of 1929.  And on September 3, 1929, a literal crash, as a TAT plane collided with a New Mexico mountain killing all eight on board.  This was the first fatal crash of a commercial airplane, but just the first of three serious accidents in the next five months for TAT.

Today you can fly non-stop from New York to LA in six hours for less than $200 one-way.  You’ll cruise in comfort in a pressurized cabin at 35,000 feet, watch a movie and surf the web… and you might even get a meal.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

August 17, 2019

"Getting There" - The Train Ride From Hell

It was the railroad trip from hell:  the hottest day of the year, stuck for five hours on a sold out Amtrak train where only half the cars had air conditioning.

The ride to Washington days earlier had been uneventful, almost on time and pleasantly cool, even though I’d made the mistake of taking a Northeast Corridor train, not Acela.  Its older Amfleet cars, though recently refurbished on the inside, are still fifty years old.

But coming back from Washington on a torrid Sunday, by cheaping out for the slower, less expensive train I got what I’d paid for.  Put another way, I didn’t get what I’d paid for.

Already a half-hour late arriving in Washington from Newport News VA, train #88 arrived on one of DC’s low-level platforms, meaning boarding passengers had to cue up for about 30 minutes before even being allowed on the platform to board.

One of the station agents said that “extra cars” had been added in Washington, so I immediately headed to the front of the train where I assumed the new cars would be empty.  It was already 98 degrees in DC, heading for a “feels like” high that day of 110, so I was looking forward to the super-AC Amtrak is known for.

No such luck, as even the newly added cars were only slightly cooler than outside.  That’ll improve when we get going, I thought.  Wrong!

By Baltimore it was getting hot and the fan system was intermittent.  Pleas for help to the conductors brought nothing more than promises that “they’ll try to reset the system in Philly”, another hour away.

In desperation I turned to social media, Tweeting sarcastically about Amtrak’s new “Sauna Cars”.  Direct messaging to @Amtrak brought no response.

The train was getting later and later on its schedule, partly because of the heat’s adverse effect on the power lines and potential warping of the rails. Knowing there’d be a lot of passengers getting off and on in Philly, I plotted my move to one of the few cars with breathable air.  Success… a cooler, though not cold, car with seats.

At Philadelphia, nothing changed, though we did learn that five of the ten cars on this train bound for Boston carrying 700+ passengers were without air conditioning.

The DC conductor crew never apologized, though they did offer small, free bottles of water, which quickly ran out. But when a new set of conductors boarded in New York, the tone changed significantly.

“We apologize folks.  This is not the kind of service we want to provide or you deserve.  Please call 1-800-USA-RAIL and register a complaint.  If the cars don’t reset after New York, we’ll try again at New Haven,” said one conductor on the PA system.

We got off in Stamford, arriving 90 minutes late, so I don’t know if the cars ever did get cooler during the next four hours run to Boston.

The next day I called Amtrak Customer Service.  A 20+ year veteran agent commiserated, empathized and got me a refund voucher.

“Those old Amfleet cars shouldn’t be refurbished, they should be retired,” she said.  “Their air conditioning is either on or off.  There’s no moderating the temperature.  Next time you should take Acela,” she added. 

Never mind that Acela costs twice as much.  Its AC works and it’s mostly on time! I’ve learned from my mistakes.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

August 11, 2019

"Getting There" - Air Quality & Transportation

Do you know how bad Connecticut’s air quality is?  According to the American Lung Association, all of our state’s counties got a grade of “F” when it comes to ozone.

On hot, summer days the sun’s rays combine with auto, truck and power plant exhausts to create an invisible blanket of ozone over our state.  When it combines with fine particulate matter it turns into a grayish haze, making breathing difficult.

Sure, we can blame states to our west whose pollution blows our way, including those “clean coal” meccas of West Virginia and Ohio.  But before we point fingers, maybe we should consider what we are doing ourselves to worsen the problem.

Think of this next time you’re in bumper-to-bumper traffic on I-95 or the parkways.  Metro-North mostly runs its trains on electricity, but its diesels are downright filthy as are local buses, though many fleets are converting to natural gas or electric operation.

Even shipping by water contributes to pollution, though you hardly think about it as you’re breathing in the brisk air of Long Island Sound.  So it was great to read recently that Connecticut will soon have its first “hybrid” cross-Sound cargo vessel, “Harbor Harvest”, named after the natural food store and cafĂ© in Norwalk.

The 65-foot, aluminum catamaran will carry everything from fresh produce to craft-brewed beer back and forth between Connecticut and Long Island.  The $2.8 million dollar vessel will charge its batteries using shore power for the 45 minute crossing.  Its owners estimate their cargo will take one or two trucks off of I-95 by cutting the travel time in half.

Mind you, the project wouldn’t even be possible were it not for a $1.8 million federal grant which the owners hope will keep them running for a couple of years.  Then we’ll see if it’s economically viable.  One shipping veteran on the coast tells me that’s “possible but not probable.”

Not that one little boat, displacing two trucks a day, is going to make our air breathable again.  But it’s a start.

Meanwhile in California, the shipping industry is “going green” on a massive scale.  The twin ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles are the two busiest ports in the US, handling 400 ships a year. 

To reduce pollution, the ports introduced a speed limit of 12 knots for ships as far as 40 miles from the docks.  Those vessels used to constantly keep at least a generator running to power the vessel in port but now they too are “plugging in” when they tie-up to unload containers and freight.

Here’s an astounding statistic:  Allowing just one container ship to use shore-power for a single day is the pollution-reducing equivalent of taking 33,000 cars off the road for that day.  That’s a major impact on air quality.  But it’s only the beginning of the needed “greening” of this transportation hub.

Containers offloaded from the vessels will soon be moved around the port on electric trucks, then mounted on railcars and carried away by fuel-efficient (but still very dirty) diesel-pulled trains and 16,000 long-distance (equally dirty) trucks.  So there’s still much to be done.
We worry so much about traffic and getting where we must, quickly and safely.  Maybe we should also think about how our transportation choices effects on our health.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

August 02, 2019

"Getting There" - The Merritt Parkway Conservancy

Former Governor Malloy used to joke that southwest Connecticut has two highways, “One’s a parking lot and the other’s a museum”.  He was obviously referring to I-95 and the Merritt Parkway.  I agree with his first characterization but he’s wrong about the second.
The Merritt Parkway is not a museum but a transportation gem… a unique, historic highway we should preserve and cherish.
Sure, the traffic on the Merritt can be brutal, not because of its design but because of the sheer volume of traffic: up to 90,000 vehicles a day.  Widening the Parkway wouldn’t help, though it’s been suggested in the past.
Designed and built in the 1930’s as an alternative to The Boston Post Road (before there was an I-95), the Merritt Parkway was the first to incorporate cloverleafs for on and off-ramps.  Its 72 unique bridges, landscape and roadways are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the Parkway itself is designated as a National Scenic Byway.
Preserving the look and historic feel of the Parkway over the past 81 years has not been easy.
Initially designed by the Merritt Highway Commission, once opened the parkway was controlled by the Merritt Parkway Commission until 1959 when that body was dissolved and care of the parkway was assumed by the Department of Transportation.
Efforts to expand interchanges at Routes 7, 8 and 25 saw community opposition and in 1973 the “Save the Merritt Association” fought back, at first successfully.  By 1976 a Merritt Parkway Advisory Committee was formed and still meets to this date.
The battle to stop freeway-like fly-overs to Routes 8 and 25 was lost, but efforts to prevent similar construction at the Route 7 interchange continues today, led  by The Merritt Parkway Conservancy.
The Conservancy was created at the suggestion of out-going CDOT Commissioner Emil Frankel who became its first Chairman in 2002. Its mission:  “to protect, preserve and enhance this historic roadway through education, advocacy and partnership ”.  Working alongside groups like the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, the American Society of Landscape Architects and the Southwest Regional Planning Association (now West COG), the Conservancy has been a tireless advocate for preserving the Parkway’s past for the future.
Conservancy Executive Director Wes Haynes drives the length of the Parkway every week looking for problems, then meets with CDOT to address them. Thanks to the Conservancy invasive species of plants are being mitigated, installation of appropriate wooden and steel guardrails is being monitored, and historic bridges (like the Lake Avenue bridge in Greenwich) are being rehabilitated.
Fortunately, there are still some old-timers at CDOT who embrace the Parkway’s unique design and work collaboratively to preserve its look.  But the pressures to turn the Merritt into another interstate persist, which is why the Conservancy needs everyone’s help.
If the Conservancy didn’t exist, who would speak  up to preserve this bucolic, lovely highway so integral to the communities through which it runs?
The Conservancy’s Board of Directors  includes two architects, a forestry expert, preservationists, law enforcement, an artist and representatives from business.  (Full disclosure:  I too am a member of the Board).  As a private non-profit organization entirely supported by members, the Conservancy welcomes new Board members who share its preservation mission and bring new ties to local communities, governments and civic organizations.  If you would like to join in the Conservancy’s work or nominate a candidate for the Board, visit the Conservancy’s website


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