July 26, 2020

"Getting There" - China Leads The World

Which is the number one country in the world for transportation?  Certainly not the United States.  Not even countries in the EU.  No, you have to look farther east, as Marco Polo did in 1271, to find the future… in China.

I’m so tired of ignorant Americans chanting “we’re number one”, when we are not.  Not in healthcare, education and clearly not when it comes to using transportation to bolster our world trade.

Compare our crumbling interstate highway system, much of it built during the Eisenhower administration, to China’s superhighways, twice the mileage of our own.

Or look at our decaying railroads versus the 15,000 miles of high speed rail on the Chinese mainland, making Amtrak’s Acela look like a toy train (145 mph vs. 220 mph, one train for 300 passengers per hour vs. China’s 1000 passenger trains departing every 15 minutes).

We keep hearing of the Trump administration’s plans for rebuilding our infrastructure, but nothing ever comes of it.  We pay lip service to that crucial investment but never appropriate it as the priority it should be.

Meanwhile, China keeps spending $300 billion a year on its roads, rails and ports… much of that money coming from bargain-loving American consumers. Crucially, part of that investment is focusing overseas, creating a new Silk Road to markets in Europe and Africa.

Beijing has promised $8 trillion in loans to developing countries to build deep water ports and rail terminals to service China’s 1000+ container ships delivering its products overseas.  Compare that to the US’s merchant marine fleet, just 175 American owned vessels.

China has invested heavily in the port city of Gwadar Pakistan, linked to western China by rail.  And in the tiny African nation of Djibouti, positioned strategically at the mouth of the Red Sea, China not only built and owns the super-port there but has established its first overseas military base there with 400 troops.

Djibouti itself is just a toe-hold in Africa, but the port is connected by a Chinese-built railroad to nearby land-locked Ethiopia, one of the wealthier countries in Africa and anxious to acquire Chinese-made products.

Of course, China is only doing what other empire-building countries like Great Britain and the US did in the past, issuing loans to countries that they’ll never be able to repay while providing lucrative markets for their products… kind of a lose-lose situation for the debtor markets.  When Pakistan and Djibouti can’t repay those Chinese loans, use your imagination to guess what they’ll have to give up instead.

To protect those Chinese-built ports and megaships, China’s People’s Liberation Navy is enjoying rapid growth, soon to rival the US Navy’s capabilities in the Pacific.  By 2030 they will have 530 warships and submarines.

Even the land route from China to Europe is being revived with rail.  There are now three trains a day departing the industrial and technology hub at Xian traveling Marco Polo’s old route west through Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Georgia carrying containers filled with electronics and textiles.

The transcontinental journey takes about two weeks but is cheaper than air and faster than shipping.  It’s not a bullet train, just efficient low cost transportation through 60 countries with 5 billion potential customers.

So while the Trump administration battles China with tariffs and empty rhetoric (like calling COVID-19 “Kung Flu”), the Chinese leadership is playing the long game. 

We are not only getting outspent by Beijing, but outsmarted.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

July 20, 2020

"Getting There" - Racial Justice on the Railroads

In the history of American transportation, there is one crucial intersection between railroads and civil rights:  the formation in 1925 of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car porters by A. Phillip Randolph.  This was the first predominantly African-American labor union in the US.


It was in 1859 that George Pullman launched the first deluxe railroad sleeping cars bearing his name.  They were an instant hit, offering middle and upper-class passengers the comforts of home.

All of the Pullman Car conductors were white but the porters who tended to the passengers were black.  Many of them were former slaves as Pullman theorized they would be used to the subservient roles of lugging baggage, making up the sleeping berths and serving the white passengers’ every whim.

After they retired for the night, passengers would place their shoes in a small compartment accessible from the corridor where the porters would retrieve and shine them.


Pullman’s porters had to be on call 20 hours a day, serving passengers and tending to boardings at intermediate stations

Porters worked 400 hours per month with their time off being uncompensated.  They had to pay for their own uniforms, meals and shoe shine kits.  Between runs, even away from home, they paid for their own lodging. The hours they spent before and after each trip preparing and cleaning the car were also unpaid.

In 1926 the average porter earned $72 a month in wages and averaged $58 a month in tips.  In contrast, Pullman’s white conductors (who had a union) earned $150 for a 240 hour month, plus benefits and a pension.

Still, Pullman’s black porters made a good income compared to others, allowing many to enter the middle class in railroad hub cities like Chicago and St Louis.


As one historian put it, a Pullman porter had the best job in his community and the worst job on the train.  There was no room for promotion.
Passengers often referred to Pullman porters by demeaning names like “boy”, or “George”, applying the first name of the cars’ owner.


In 1925 A. Phillip Randolph started organizing The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters under the rallying cry “Fight or be slaves”.  It took a decade of court battles and the threat of a national strike before the union was recognized in 1937, giving porters a big wage hike and a 240 hour per month work schedule.

Randolph and others in the Brotherhood went on to become leaders of the civil rights movement.  One porter, Edgar D. Nixon, helped organize the Montgomery Alabama bus boycott after Rosa Parks’ arrest in 1955.  While Nixon was working the rails he had a young minister assist in that battle… Martin Luther King Jr.

Among other famous Pullman porters were future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, activist Malcolm X and photographer Gordon Parks.

By the 1950’s train service was in decline and in 1959 Pullman closed up its sleeping car business.  Some porters went on to work with the legacy railroads and a few were still around when Amtrak took over.

In 1995 a museum dedicated to Randolph and his work for the Pullman porters was opened in Chicago in one of the original row houses George Pullman constructed as worker housing at his plant.  The museum is now collecting the names and histories of past porters and their descendants to celebrate Randolph’s contribution to black history 

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

July 12, 2020

"Getting There" - Where's The Legislature?

Where the heck has the Connecticut legislature been for the past few months?  With so many pressing issues, why haven’t they met?

Oh, they’ll tell you it’s because of safety that they couldn’t convene. But we know better.  Plenty of state legislatures… even the US House of Representatives… have carried on the people’s business virtually or well-masked while our pols went AWOL.

No, Connecticut’s lawmakers finished the budget and just scurried home, leaving the running of the state to Governor Lamont by executive order.  Now they’re jealous of his success.

Ned Lamont is no Andrew Cuomo, but most Nutmeggers think he’s done a pretty good job as his poll ratings have never been higher: 78% of respondents in a recent Q Poll said he was doing a good job handling the pandemic.

So now our legislators are saying they’ve been left out?  Seasoned members of the House tell me their leadership “ceded governing” to Lamont while others told me, “I’m anxious to come back.  I shake hands for a living”.  Well, not anymore.

Not that legislators haven’t been busy.  Doubtless your State Rep and Senator’s been filling your social media feed with pictures of them passing out face masks, gathering donations for food drives and dining al fresco to help local business. 

And your mailbox is doubtless stuffed with their long, anguished e-letters about “living in extraordinary times” and “adapting to the new normal”.  They talk about helping constituents navigating the state’s bureaucracy, which is their job.

All that’s super.  But what about fulfilling their real responsibility… making laws?

Having quarantined, done their volunteer photo-ops and social media updates, now, finally, they’re ready to get back to their work.


Sometime this month our lawmakers will return to Hartford for a quick session but one fraught with danger… not to their health, but to the public good.   They’re going to meet, debate and vote on “the Implementer”.

You see, after a bill becomes law, legislators must “implement” it to make it go into effect.  Easy stuff… if that’s all they do.

But instead, The Implementer may become a giant Christmas tree, laden with special bills, good and bad, taken in one up-or-down, all-or-nothing vote.  Some of these “emergency certified” bills have had hearings, but most have not.  Why slow up the lawmaking process by actually engaging the public?

Worse yet, in this hyperspeed law-making process, many lawmakers aren’t even given time to read, let alone understand, what they are voting on.  Leaders just deliver a 500-page document that they then must vote on in 48 hours.

Think of all the topics these lawmakers played hookey on for the past three months:  sports betting, vaccine mandates, absentee ballot reform, police accountability and, yes, transportation investment.

Lawmakers didn’t have the guts to vote on tolls.  So why rush through these crucial issue now instead of waiting ‘til the next session?

Should our elected representatives vote on these issues in just 48 hours without putting these ill-conceived, poorly drafted, and hastily reviewed” bills (as one Republican called them) through the usual committee review, public hearing and debate process?  I think not.

Even if we agree on the need for some of these measures, shouldn’t they all be reviewed and voted on separately, not force-fed as an all-or-nothing “dog’s breakfast” (as one veteran described it to me)?

However well-intentioned, the end does not justify the means.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

July 06, 2020

"Getting There" - The Cranky Commuter

Call me a curmudgeon, but I’m getting cranky about transportation these days.  For example:

Why is it so hard for train and subway passengers to wear a face mask?  Does the MTA really need to do a PSA campaign (with pictures!) showing that a mask around your neck or not covering your nose and mouth isn’t protecting anyone?  Apparently so.  Non-compliant passengers are either stupid or uncaring, or both.

Here’s the solution:  just like the old days when Metro-North had smoking and non-smoking cars, let’s have masked and unmasked cars.  Let the unmasked idiots ride together, get sick and stop commuting, freeing up more space for the rest of us.

The LIRR has a nifty new app that riders can use to see which cars on their train are crowded and which ones aren’t, encouraging social distancing.  If Metro-North really cares about social distancing, bring that app to our trains, now.

The airlines say they want us to fly again, but they’re doing little to make us feel safe.  They proclaim that passengers should wear face masks, but they don’t enforce the rule.  They say they’ll keep middle seats empty, but don’t.  They can sanitize each plane ‘til the cows come home but it won’t protect us from one unmasked, asymptomatic bozo.
Now the airlines have suspended drink and food service, instead handing out plastic bags with small bottles of water and a few snacks… but no booze.  Passengers can BYO food, but not alcohol.  I guess the airport bars, if they’re open, will be really busy as passengers self-medicate before their next flight.

As I predicted, as New York City opens up commuters are opting for the relative safety of their own cars instead of taking the train.  That means traffic on our highways is building again, approaching pre-pandemic levels of congestion. 
Meantime, where are the Connecticut State Police?  Why are trucks driving faster, often in the left hand lane, with impunity?  And why does I-95 sound like a speedway at night, with muscle cars and motorcycles defying the speed limit and common sense as they treat the interstate like a drag strip?

There’s good news (some) and bad (lots of it) about Amtrak.
On-time performance is getting so good that some trains are arriving ahead of schedule.  That shows how padded the old timetable has been.
The other good news is that Amtrak’s next generation of Acela is undergoing testing and should be in service by 2021.  Too bad there won’t be any passengers to ride them.
Though train service from Washington to Boston is slowly returning, ridership is not.  At least not yet, especially in other parts of the country.  So the railroad has announced it is cutting daily service to just three days a week on long distance runs outside of the northeast, starting October 1st. 
My rail fan friends are going nuts over the announcement, but to me this makes sense.  If there’s no ridership, why run shorter but still near-empty trains?  While the Northeast Corridor trains used to come close to turning a profit, the long distance trains have always been a money loser.  So in tight times, let’s prioritize and put the trains where the passengers are.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media


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