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December 26, 2019

"Getting There" - Driving to Florida by Train

Since 1971, you’ve been able to travel by train to Florida with your car, avoiding the mayhem of Interstate 95. And although the service is now run by Amtrak, it actually started as a private enterprise.

Trains carrying passengers and their cars have been used in Europe for decades, but in the early 1970s, the U.S. Department of Transportation conducted a study of long distance rail travel to avoid the problems of the oil crisis.

In 1971, Eugene Garfield took the idea and started the Auto-Train Corporation, buying his own fleet of locomotives, Pullman sleepers, dome car-coaches and dining cars. Most important, he acquired 62 bilevel autorack cars. He set up shop in Lorton, Va., just south of Washington, and right off of I-95.

The train’s southern terminus was Sanford, Fla., near Orlando’s Disney World, which had opened months earlier. The overnight run was a popular alternative to the two-day drive, and soon a complementary service for folks from the Midwest started running from Louisville, Ky.

That additional train didn’t draw the expected crowds and, combined with climbing crew costs and a few derailments, the private Auto-Train Corp. was in bankruptcy by April 1981.

After a couple of years with no service, Amtrak stepped in, acquiring the stations and some of the rolling stock. Eventually the older “Heritage Fleet” passenger coaches and sleepers were replaced with double-deck Superliner cars and the old autoracks were updated to 80 enclosed car-carriers, each carrying 10 vehicles. There’s also a special area for motorcycles.

Passengers heading north or south must be at the departure station by 2 p.m. when the cars are loaded. Passengers board a half-hour later and the trains depart at 4 p.m. With 18 passenger cars and 33 car-carriers, the train is almost three-quarters of a mile long, making it the longest passenger train in the world.

At midnight, the northbound and southbound trains meet in Florence, S.C., for refueling and crew change before continuing on through the night. The total 855-mile trip takes 17.5 hours, arriving the next morning at 8:30 a.m. Within a couple of hours, the last of the cars is unloaded and you’re on your way.

Pricing depends on the size of your car, how many passengers and the type of accommodation. But looking at the Amtrak website about a month in advance, transport of the car would cost $258 (motorcycle $146) and anywhere from $89 to $280 per coach passenger. Or you could opt for a roomette ($455), family bedroom ($561) or Superliner bedroom ($647) — all prices one-way.

Prices vary with demand and sleeping car space sells out fast, despite the high price, as many Auto Train loyalists can’t or won’t fly or have mobility issues.

Sleeping car passengers’ meals are included in their fares, while coach passengers can BYO or dine in the AmCafe. In January, much of the service will be “enhanced,” says the railroad.

In addition to autos, the train will soon accommodate SUVs, vans, small boats or Jet Skis. More sleepers will be added and a variety of food trucks will cater coach passengers needs before departure.

So if you’re a “snow bird,” consider the Auto Train. It sure beats driving on I-95.
Jim Cameron is a founder of the Commuter Action Group and former chair of the Connecticut Rail Commuter Council. A veteran television journalist, he writes about transportation issues facing Connecticut commuters.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

"Getting There" - The Dymaxion Car


Did you know that Bridgeport was once the home of “the car of the future”?  It was the Tesla of its era, but only three were ever built.

This mystery vehicle?  The Dymaxion Car.  The designer?  Buckminster Fuller.

Best known for his pioneering 1940’s architectural design of the geodesic dome, a decade earlier Fuller was already inventing other things.  It was the 1930’s and the country was struggling through the Depression.  Fuller saw the need for innovation, for “doing more with less”, and conceived of a mass-produced, pre-fabricated circular house modeled after a grain silo.

Built with aluminum, Fuller only saw two prototypes of the dwelling constructed and even they weren’t actually built until 1945.  Fuller called his design The Dymaxion House… Dy for Dynamic, Max for Maximum and Ion for tension. It was a major flop.

Next Fuller moved on to transportation, conceiving of The Dymaxion Car, an 11 person, three wheeled vehicle that he hoped might one day would even be able to fly using what he called “jet stilts”… and this was decades before the invention of the jet engine.

Indeed, The Dymaxion Car looked a lot like a stubby zeppelin with a forward-facing cockpit and tapered, aerodynamic tail.  Equipped with a rear-mounted engine that could run on alcohol, it could go 90 mph and get 30 miles to the gallon.  The car had dual steel frames while a wooden lattice work held the outside aluminum panels in place.  The single rear wheel could pivot 90 degrees making parking a breeze.

Bankrolled with $5000 from wealthy investor and socialite Philip Pearson of Philadelphia, Fuller needed a place to build a prototype and ended up at the old Locomobile plant on Atlantic Street in Bridgeport’s Tongue Point neighborhood.  Don’t bother looking for this piece of history.  It’s long gone as the land is now home to the PG&E power plant.

When Fuller set up the auto workshop in March 1933 he hired naval architect Starling Burgess who recruited 27 workmen, many of them from Rolls Royce, from the 1000 applications he received.  In just three months the first prototype was completed and rolled out onto the streets of Bridgeport on Fuller’s 38th birthday.  The car was immediately shipped to Chicago for display at the World’s Fair.

Sadly, the prototype was totaled after it was involved in a car crash, flipped over and killed its driver and left VIP passengers injured.  Initial orders for the Dymaxion started to evaporate over safety fears even though it turns out the Fuller car had been sideswiped.

A second prototype emerged from the Bridgeport plant six months later.  Fuller had hoped to display the Dymaxion at the 1934 New York Auto Show but pressure from Chrysler locked him out, literally.  Not to be outdone, Fuller parked prototype #2 right by the front door of the show and got more attention than he might have on the exhibit floor.

Fuller even brought the car back for the last year of the Chicago World’s Fair in 1934 but public curiosity didn’t turn into sales.  Fuller eventually sold this second prototype to his plant workers while a third model, this one equipped with a stabilizing vertical fin, went to conductor Leopold Stokowski.

Only one of the three Dymaxions survived… car #2, which is now at an auto museum in Reno NV.  But Bucky Fuller fans have built replicas, some of which are still on the roads today 80 years later.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media


December 11, 2019

"Getting There" - Why Are Trucks on the Parkways?

Hardly a week goes by that an over-height truck and a low-slung bridge on the Merritt Parkway have a close encounter of the worst kind:  a collision.

The King Street bridge in Greenwich has been hit 150 times in the last decade, 24 times last year alone.  Despite $1.8 million in warning devices installed to prevent these strikes, they keep happening.
All of the bridges on the Merritt Parkway, originally built to a minimum standard of eleven feet at the abutments, are too low for trucks.  In some places the bridges are even lower due to roadbed re-grading. The road just wasn’t designed for anything but passenger cars.
Trucks aren’t the only vehicles banned from the parkways.  So too are RV’s, cars towing trailers, buses, hearses (in funeral processions) and all commercial vehicles. That includes any vehicle with advertising or logos on it, even passenger cars with “Combi” (combination passenger and commercial) plates.
But we know those trucks are there.  We see them all the time.  So why aren’t they getting ticketed?
The CT State Police tell me it’s an issue of priorities.  They only have two troopers patrolling the Merritt Parkway per shift and their hands are full handling speeders, traffic accidents, drug busts etc.  But they still manage to issue a few tickets per shift to the illicit truckers.
The problem is, it’s only a $92 ticket for violating the prohibited vehicles warning signs at every entrance.  That’s not much of a deterrent.  A bill last year to raise that penalty to $500 never made it to a vote in the legislature.
The old “Prohibited” signs were hardly noticeable and were wordy and confusing.  So CDOT has just changed out all the signs to something simpler, more colorful and attention-getting.  Maybe they’ll help.
But even where more sophisticated warning systems employing lasers, blaring horns and flashing lights are in place, bridges still get struck. Blame the drivers.
Many drivers say their GPS for directing them onto the parkways, so some insurance companies are offering financial incentives for fleet owners who use “smart GPS” designed for commercial drivers which will warn drivers of over-height vehicles to stay away.  But if you’re using a regular GPS unit or an app like WAZE, you’re out of luck.
When a truck does strike a bridge there are consequences.  In addition to often ripping the roof off the vehicle, the troopers also call in their Truck Squad which can issue thousands of dollars in fines if they find other violations regarding the weight of the vehicle, the driver’s log etc.
And as with motor vehicle accidents on any state road, if you damage one of the Merritt Parkway’s historic bridges or knock over a sign, your insurance company is going to pay.
Usually, when an over-height truck strikes one of the Merritt’s 40 concrete underpasses, the truck loses.  But any damage to these historic bridges, many of them recently restored, can take months to get repaired. Not to mention the incredible backups and delays from these accidents. 
When the Merritt Parkway opened in 1940, the speed limit was 40 mph and it was designed to carry 18,000 vehicles a day.  These days, outside of the bumper-to-bumper rush hours, the average speed is 73 mph and the parkway handles 90,000 vehicles per day. That’s enough.
We must reject continuing efforts to open this scenic byway to trucks. They just don’t belong there.


​Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

December 04, 2019

"Getting There" - Tales from the Trail

Twenty-three year old Diana Jackson just walked 2192 miles. 

The Darien native is one of over 3300 people each year who try to walk the entire length of the Appalachian Trail (AT), from Georgia to Maine.  But she’s one of the 25% of them that complete the task.

She learned to hike with her parents in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and at age seven announced her goal of making the entire trek.  Her parents humored her, but on graduation from Wellesley College in 2018 she got serious and spent six months in preparation. “I think of this as my gap year”, she said.

“I have a tendency of psyching myself out,” she says, so she didn’t read too many books about the dangers of the adventure.  But she did drop a lot of money on a tent, sleeping bag and the first of four pairs of hiking boots… each replaced as it wore out.

Starting in late March south of Springer Mountain in Georgia, on her first night it rained and she got soaked.  Crude shelters are maintained by volunteers along the trail, but they are first come, first served and the early Spring nights were as cold in Georgia as the October nights when she finished in Maine.

If she was lucky she’d find a hostel just off the trail where for $25 a night she could get a bunk.  But most nights her dehydrated dinners heated over her camp stove were her cuisine of choice. Her trail name was “Little Debbie” in homage to her favorite snack. But over six months she lost 40 pounds.

Her backpack weighed 45 pounds, yet she was able to average about 20 miles of walking each day.

In most places the AT is described as “the green tunnel” but in others there are serious mountains to climb and rivers to cross (some without bridges).  She relied on an app called Guthook, named after a hiker, which used GPS to keep on the trail and leading her to drinkable water, shelters and hostels.  At least once a day she could find a cell signal to let her family know where she was and how she was doing.

Twice she suffered injuries, falling face first and hurting her knee.  She was all alone and without her usual first aid kit so she just kept going, “pushing through the pain” until she could find help.

By the end of October she could see her goal in sight, 5267 foot Mount Katahdin in northern Maine, the end of the AT. But it took her a couple of days to reach the summit, alternately crying, laughing and filled with joy.  Her parents joined her for the final climb, though she put them on a slightly easier trail.

After the victory came the inevitable letdown but also some important life lessons.  “I had always doubted myself,” she says.  “But now I know I can do anything.”

She’s no longer jealous of classmates with high paying jobs.  “I can join the corporate world anytime, but now, when I’m young, is the time to live this dream. The trail is the happiest place for me.” As well as the beauties of nature, she misses the camaraderie of her fellow hikers.

She’s already setting her sights on a new goal for 2021: walking the 2600 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.