October 27, 2019

"Getting There" - Reading Old Timetables

I love reading timetables.  Not the new ones on smartphone apps, but the old printed ones.  Reading about a train or plane’s journey on paper is almost like taking the ride itself.

Growing up in Canada I was fascinated with the two major passenger railroads, the quasi-government owned “crown corporation” Canadian National Railroad (CNR) and the private Canadian Pacific Railroad (CPR).  Both ran transcontinental trains from Montreal and Toronto to Vancouver, a journey of 70+ hours… if they were on time.

I wondered why the CPR’s streamliner “The Canadian” left Toronto at 4:15 pm while its CNR competitor “The Super Continental” left at 6 pm.  And why did the CNR’s later-leaving train arrive 4 hours earlier into Vancouver than the CPR’s?   Reading the 31 stop itinerary explained why:  they took much different routes through the Canadian Rockies.  The CPR’s more southerly, scenic route was the highlight of the trip so they timed the journey for daylight hours.

Canada has two official languages, English and French, so it was by reading those timetables I learned that “quotidien” meant daily, “repas” meant meal and “douane” translated as customs, as in crossing an international border.

Fast forward fifty years and I’m still intrigued with old New Haven Railroad timetables, comparing that crack (private) railroad’s speeds with those of present-day Metro-North and Amtrak.  How did the New Haven make it from New Haven to Penn Station in 90 minutes while it today takes Amtrak 109 minutes?

But old timetables contain more than train times.  They also talk about the entire travel experience.

Did it really (in 1955) cost just $7.75 to go from Boston to NY in coach ($14 in a lower berth, $13 in an upper)?  The old timetables also list the trains’ “consists”… what kind of rail cars made up each run: coaches, Pullmans, Parlor-Lounge car (some equipped with two-way radio telephones) and diners.

On the aviation side I remember when airlines published their own timetables too, often promoting their advanced aircraft:  American airline’s 707 Astrojet, United’s DC-8 Mainliner and Braniff Airlines “Conquistador” DC-6

The illustrations were always of well-dressed travelers smiling as they boarded their planes using ground-stairs, long before airports had jetways.  The seating looked roomy and comfortable as well-coiffed stewardesses served elaborate meals.

But the grand-daddy of all airline timetables was the OAG, the Official Airlines Guide, a phone-booked-sized (look it up, kids) compendium of every flight in the country.  As a one-time road warrior I even subscribed to the “pocket” version which was about an inch thick.  Miss a flight?  Your OAG would show you the alternatives.

What I enjoyed most reading the OAG’s railroad-style timetable wasn’t the flight times, and later, the on-time performance percentage, but the kind of aircraft used on each flight.  I took a liking to TWA’s iconic L-1011’s and avoided American’s DC-10’s after the deadly 1979 crash at O’Hare.

And after 9/11 I always opted for any airline flying Airbus equipment.  The reason?  The 9/11 terrorists had gone to flight school to learn how to fly traditional “yolk” flight controls, but only the airlines’ own simulators could train pilots on the Airbus fly-by-wire joystick controls:  i.e., Airbus jets were not going to get hijacked.  Or so I hoped.

Today there are no paper timetables.  All the information is online and on my phone… handy, but not as romantic.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media


October 17, 2019

"Getting There" - Connecticut's Own Igor Sikorsky

Have you ever flown in a helicopter?  They seem such a glamorous (if expensive) way to travel, bypassing the traffic enroute to the airport or sightseeing over rugged terrain.

But do you know that the helicopter had its first flight ever right here in Connecticut, the creation of Russian immigrant and inventor Igor Sikorsky, 80 years ago.

Sure, Leonardo da Vinci made early drawings of a vertical flying machine, but that was in the 1480’s.  And kids had been playing with hand-turned, propeller-driven toys for centuries before that.

Sikorsky drew his earliest concept drawings of a helicopter years before the Wright brothers ever flew at Kitty Hawk.  But when he fled Russia with his family, it was fixed-wing aircraft that gave Sikorsky his start in aviation.

At the age of 21 he designed his first airplane, the S-1, a single-engine pusher biplane. Twenty-three designs later he built the S-42 flying boat, made famous by Pan American as “The Flying Clipper”.  The four-engined craft had a range of 1200 miles carrying 37 passengers by day or 14 by night in berths, cruising at 170 mph.

Even as Pan Am was opening literally over-seas markets, Sikorsky was still working on his dreams of a helicopter.  At his plant in Stratford his VS-300 made its first flight, albeit tied to the ground, in September of 1939.

A 1942 version, the Sikorsky R-4, became the first mass-produced helicopter, quickly adopted by the armed forces of the US and UK. It had only one crew member, could only carry 500 pounds, but had a range of 130 miles flying 65 mph at up to 8000 feet.

Flash forward to the present and Sikorsky’s old company, now part of Lockheed Martin, still produces helicopters. Sikorsky’s successor companies, then part of United Aircraft Corp, even designed the short-lived (1968 -1976) Turbotrain, powered by a Pratt & Whitney turbine “jet engine”.  The train could make the 230 mile New York to Boston run in three hours and 39 minutes.  Today’s Acela can do the same run in no less than 3 hours 55 minutes.

In a competition with the electric-powered Metroliner in 1967, the Turbotrain hit 170 mph, a land speed record for a gas turbine-powered rail vehicle. Acela does no better than 145 mph.

Today’s modern helicopters come in all sizes and speeds… from the beefy Seahawk SH-3 “Sea King” which can carry five tons over 600 miles at 166 mph… to “personal” helicopters for one person flying 60 miles at 80 mph.

For helicopter fans, New York’s east-side heliports at Wall Street and 34th Street offer the chance to see luxury craft in action, some privately owned, others offering passenger service.  BLADE Helicopters will get you to the Hamptons from midtown in 33 minutes starting at $695 one-way.  

In the 1960’s NY Helicopter flew from the NY airports to the top of the Pan Am building. I took that flight once, transferred to an elevator and walked onto a train in Grand Central.  For awhile they even choppered to Stamford’s heliport on Canal Street in the South End.

Much has changed in aviation in the last 80 years since Sikorsky’s first helicopter took to the air.  And to think that it all started here in Connecticut.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media


October 10, 2019

"Getting There" - Amtrak's Next Acela

I’m a big fan of high speed trains, which means I often ride Amtrak’s Acela to Boston or Washington.  It’s the best train in North America, though it pales in comparison to true HSR (high speed rail) in Europe or Asia.

While Acela can hit a top speed of 150 mph, it does so on only 34 of the 457 miles between DC and Boston.  Over the entire run, what with congestion and station stops, it only averages about 70 mph.

But its 20 runs a day are highly popular, especially with business travelers on expense accounts (the fares are roughly double usual coach fares).  The trains are often sold out and, depending on whose accounting you trust, actually make a profit for the quasi-public corporation, carrying 3.4 million passengers a year:  25% of Amtrak’s total revenue.

As well maintained as the Acela fleet is, it’s getting old.  The trains have been running almost 20 years old and they’re too small, carrying just 304 passengers per trip.  Compare that to the Eurostar from London to Paris (750 passengers per train) or Japan’s Shinkansen from Tokyo to Osaka (1300 passengers).

So, Amtrak is building the next generation of Acela.

When it was shopping for the first Acela, Amtrak tested two European designs… the Swedish X2000 tilt-train and the German ICE Train.  Liking elements of both, they opted for neither, instead going for a brand new design custom built by Bombardier and Alstom.  This time they’re going with a proven design modeled after Alstom’s French TGV and Italy’s Pendolino.

The new Acelas will carry 378 passengers and will be built with aluminum bodies.  They’ll be capable of speeds of 220 mph but will probably never achieve those rates.  Given the old roadbed and signal system, they’ll probably max out at 160 mph on the small portion of track that can handle it.  Think of a Ferrari trying to drive on a potholed I-95.

So while they’ll be no faster than the existing Acelas, they may be more comfortable. Using an active tilting system they’ll be able to go faster through the Northeast’s many curves, without tossing passengers or their drinks into the aisle.

Each of the 28 trainsets will have engines at each end pulling and pushing nine passenger cars.  If ridership remains strong, three additional articulated coaches can be added to each trainset.

The seating will be Business and First Class (Coach is only for the slower and cheaper Northeast Corridor trains).  Each plush leather seating row will have power and USB plugs.  The CafĂ© Car will be snazzier, too.

The initial trainsets are being built now at Alstom’s plant in Hormel NY.  Testing should start this fall at the FRA’s test track in Pueblo CO and, if all goes well, on the Northeast Corridor itself by December.

Assuming no problems, the new Acelas should enter commercial service in 2021 with all 28 sets delivered by 2022, at which point Amtrak will retire the original models.

Mind you, these new cars are not cheap:  about $2 billion for the 28 trains, making them Amtrak’s most expensive purchase ever.  Each train will cost about double what its European counterparts do because of FRA requirements for crash-worthiness:  the engines are built like a tank to sustain any impact in a crash.

So hang in there rail fans.  Something new is coming from Amtrak to a train line near you!

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.

October 04, 2019

"Getting There" - Commuting Can Make You Sick


It shouldn’t come as much surprise to learn that commuting, especially by car, is hazardous to your health.

Research now shows that the longer your drive, the greater the risk of obesity, heart attacks and even low birth-weight babies for moms-to-be.  At fault are a number of factors:

STRESS:      Being stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic increases your cortisol and adrenaline levels, increasing your risk of a heart attack during your drive and for an hour after. Getting angry when someone cuts you off only makes things worse.  Increased blood pressure also leads to lack of sleep, leaving you tired even as you leave the house each morning.

OBESITY:     The longer your commute, by car or mass transit, the more sedentary your life and the less exercise you get.  Couple that commute with fast food (and its sugar, salt and fat) and you’re at even greater risk.

BACK & NECK PAIN:        A 2010 Gallup poll shows that a third of all people who commute more than 90 minutes a day complain of pain due to poor posture and uncomfortable seating.

POLLUTION:     The longer you’re stuck in traffic the more bad air you breathe. A 2007 study of Los Angeles residents showed that half of their exposure to harmful air happened during their drive time.

LOW BIRTH-WEIGHT:      Researchers at Lehigh University, studied New Jersey birth records. They found that for pregnant women commuting 50 miles each day, there was a 1% increase in the chance of having a low birth-weight baby for every ten miles they traveled. Not only was “chronic maternal stress” a factor, but so too were missed doctor visits due to lack of free time.

The average commute time for Connecticut residents is 26 minutes each way, and climbing.  For Fairfield County residents going to jobs in New York City, it’s more than an hour.  And as traffic worsens and trains run slower, those commute times are climbing.

For those who bike or walk to work, the risks are lessened, but not eliminated.  The physical exertion is better for your heart, but bikers and pedestrians are still prone to collisions and accidents en route.

Just 20 years ago up to 70% of kids walked to school.  Now it’s only about 20% as the others take the school bus or are driven by Mom.  We’re turning our kids into local commuters at a very young age.

What can you do if you must commute long distances?  Plenty:

Try not to get stressed out while driving.  Leave a bit earlier than usual so you’re not grinding your teeth fearing you’ll be late.  Listen to books on tape, podcasts or something fun… not the news, which will only contributes to anxiety.  Try varying your route.  A change of scenery will keep you engaged.

On mass transit, don’t isolate yourself.  Socialize by talking to your fellow commuters (but not in The Quiet Car!)

In your automobile, keep the windows up and the air recirculating to avoid auto exhausts.  Make up for the sedentary (though stressful) drive by taking a walk at lunch.

Acknowledge the lack of control in your commute when traffic or train delays happen.  Just know that you’re doing the best you can with the things you can control… that you’re going to get there eventually and most of all that you’re trying to get their safely.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media


BUILDING GREAT (AND REALLY EXPENSIVE) THINGS

Grand Central Madison, the new train station bored into the rock beneath Grand Central Terminal, is finally open.  When it’s fully operation...