July 25, 2021

"Getting There" - The Amazon Logistics Marvel

These days “Getting There” doesn’t just mean moving yourself from point A to B, but the logistics of moving stuff from dozens of locations to your doorstep.  And nobody does that better than Amazon.

Want a new pair of jeans? Click once and they’re delivered the next day.  Need a new printer?  Maybe a couple of days because they’re still scarce, thanks to the home-office explosion.  Your favorite ointment out of stock at CVS?  Save yourself a trip, click here and apply twice daily.

In his 2013 book “The Everything Store” (yes, available on Amazon), business writer Brad Stone chronicle the early days of Jeff Bezos’ dream.  But in the intervening years the Amazon phenomenon has grown far beyond anything that even Stone could have envisioned.

And now that Bezos has stepped down as CEO it’s worth a moment to admire what his team has built.

At the heart of the operation is a logistics network that is a marvel of technology.  So just how does a package go from your click to your doorstep?  Keep in mind that half of all Amazon orders are for third-party sellers just racking their goods on Amazon’s e-shelves.

Most Amazon orders are handled at one of the company’s 110 US “Fulfillment Centers”, massive 800,000 to one million square foot warehouses filled with robotics.  So far there are two such centers in Connecticut, Windsor and North Haven, with more in the works.

Merchandise arrives by the pallet and gets offloaded, scanned and stored by some of the 1500 full time employees at each site.  Other, slightly smaller centers house the really big stuff… furniture, lawn mowers and such.

As sales soared during the pandemic, Amazon went on a hiring binge, bringing an additional quarter million staffers onboard, many of them enticed by $1000 signing bonuses.  Worldwide the company has 1.3 million employees.

Much has been reported on the working conditions in Amazon facilities… the long hours, intense pressure for performance, etc.  While we should keep this in mind when we shop at Amazon, there seems no shortage of folks willing to take these jobs, averaging about $40,000 a year in Connecticut, plus benefits.

These are the folks who, with the help of Kiva robotics, pick your order, pack it up and SLAM it… scan, label, apply and manifest.  Then it rides miles of conveyor belts and is sorted by destination zip code.

It used to be that Amazon relied on FedEx, UPS and the postal service (for the last mile) to deliver your order, supplemented by freelancers earning $20 an hour to make deliveries using their own cars and vans.

But lately Connecticut has seen Amazon roll out its own fleet of dark grey Prime vans to handle many deliveries, with plans to convert to an all-electric delivery fleet by 2040.  The current vans are noticeable by their back-up warning sounding like a quacking duck rather than the usual beep-beep.

Supporting this US network are 20,000 tractor trailer trucks and Amazon’s own cargo airline, Prime Air.  That plane fleet has doubled in size this year to 85 leased jets and Amazon even is building its own $1.5 billion airport hub in Kentucky.

So next time you click to shop, think of the amazing logistics network that helps your package in “Getting There”.


Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media


July 09, 2021

"Getting There" - Is It "Time for CT"?

In 1955 a New Haven Railroad commuter train could run non-stop for the 36-mile distance from Stamford to Grand Central in 48 minutes.  Today that Stamford to NYC run takes 59 minutes at best, despite Governor Lamont’s long-promised dream of a 30 minute trip time. 

But now there’s a new effort to speed up the New Haven line: CDOT’s ambitious “Time for CT” $8-10 billion plan.   It promises 10-minute faster running times from New Haven to NY by next year and a 25-minute quicker run by 2035.

While some dream of a new high speed rail system running from Washington to Boston at 200+ mph speeds, CDOT and Metro-North are taking, in my view, a much more realistic approach to fixing our existing system. “Higher” speeds will be fine.

Reading the consultant-driven 138-page plan, years in the making, one gets a sobering picture of how badly our railroad has deteriorated.

For safety reasons, “slow orders” all along the line have cut speeds to 37 mph, both for commuter trains and Amtrak. 

As one trouble spot gets fixed, another pops up as Metro-North plays whack-a-mole with decaying infrastructure. Layer on top of this permanent slow orders implemented by the FRA in 2013 and you can understand commuters’ frustrations.

There are 57,000 track-ties that must be replaced.  Of the 134 bridges between New Haven and the NY state line, 34 are rated as poor or in serious conditions.  The open deck timber bridges are in most need of attention. 

And of the five movable bridges, only one has been replaced while the others are each more than a century old.  The South Norwalk swing bridge project alone will cost about one billion dollars.

The catenary (overhead power) system is in better shape, but some of its trackside support structures are also in the century-plus club.  There’s a lot of work to be done.  And trying to do it while still running the railroad will be like changing the fan belt on a car running 60 mph.

At the Stratford event unveiling the CDOT plan, the construction unions photo-bombed the press conference unveiling a huge banner reading “Jobs Jobs Jobs”.  And every speaker pandered to them promising “45,000 good paying union jobs” on this project.

But it’s not like CDOT or Metro-North will be hiring 45,000 new plumbers, electricians and carpenters.  That number is a hypothetical projection based on the cost and time involved in the work.

The Metro-North unions  have jurisdiction over all track work and you can’t join that union until you get hired by the railroad.  Then you need training which can only be done on the job.  And you need track equipment, some of which on the New Haven line is 30 years old.

Hopefully we’ll have enough money to make all this happen thanks to Senator Blumenthal and the Congressional compromise on infrastructure achieved recently.  But then we still need leadership.

CDOT has been suffering a brain drain in recent years, losing its best and brightest planners and engineers to retirement, those fat state pensions or lucrative consultant jobs.  With so much Federal money being thrown at transportation, Connecticut will be in serious competition for a limited pool of expertise.

There’s so much to be done. But it’s all achievable given enough money and patience.


Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media


In my college days I did some strange stuff… like driving all night from Chicago to NYC, hitting 75 mph on Interstate 80, just me and the tr...