August 22, 2021

"Getting There" - The Railway to the Moon

New England is home to many railroad “firsts”, but none is more impressive than the Mount Washington Cog Railway, the world’s first cog rail line.  And it’s still running, at a profit, 152 years late, using some of the original equipment.

Unlike most railroads, “The Cog” doesn’t pull its coaches along a relatively flat line with flanged wheels on two parallel tracks.  A cog railroad’s locomotive directly connects its gears to a center rack of iron teeth, pushing the train up the mountain very slowly, but surely.

On a normal railroad the train can handle a two percent grade (or climb) at best.  On the Mount Washington Cog the grade is as steep as 38% as the train ascends the 6,288-foot peak over three miles of steep track at about 3 mph.

A recent race up the mountain between humans on foot and The Cog saw the train win the climb to the summit by about ten seconds.

Originally proposed as a tourist attraction by Sylvester Marsh in 1858, the entrepreneur was almost laughed out of the New Hampshire legislature when seeking a charter, teasing him that he had as much chance of building a train line to the top of New England’s highest peak as building “a railway to the moon”.

But build it he did and it is still running to this date, now owned by the Presby family who once owned the nearby Mount Washington Hotel and Bretton Woods Resorts.  Since assuming sole ownership of this historic line, Presby has poured over $3 million of dollars into its preservation and enhancement.

While The Cog still operates two century-old steam locomotives, their unique design with slanting boilers (to handle the steep pitch) requires hand-made replacement parts.  These old puffers consume a ton of coal and a thousand gallons of water on every trip while generating a lot of smoke, known to locals as “Cog smog”.

Augmenting the two steam powered trips each day is a fleet of biodiesels that do the journey on 18 gallons of cleaner-burning fuel.  Each locomotive pushes one passenger car carrying 70 passengers.  Like the locos, the passenger cars are all hand-crafted on the property and are adorned with beautiful wood inlays. The newest cars also have a reassuring automatic air brake system.

During the COVID shutdown in 2020 the railway accelerated a rehab process, replacing the rails and racks on the line and building a state-of-the-art repair shop.  The five-year project was finished in eight months.

Since its opening over 150 years ago The Cog has always attracted crowds.  Pre-COVID ridership topped 120,000 annually and with an expanded all-year schedule they hope to surpass those numbers this year.

Unlike some railroads we know, The Cog runs on time thanks to superb maintenance and a dedicated staff of 100.  They’re even hiring new engineers and mechanics, some of them coming from an apprenticeship program with a nearby community college.

Summer and fall are the busy seasons, but a wintertime climb half-way up the peak sounds spectacular, given extreme weather conditions atop the peak where the winter wind chill gets to 50 below.

Tickets aren’t cheap, but well worth it for the experience.  Some of the fall steam trips are already booked up. If you’re any kind of railfan, The Cog is a must for your bucket list.

August 07, 2021

"Getting There" - Road & Rail Scofflaws

What do  Metro-North and the Merritt Parkway have in common, I mean, aside from often crawling at a snail’s pace?  Well, both seem to be hotbeds of unenforced safety rules.

Anybody who has driven the Parkway knows that its 1930’s design cannot accommodate trucks, but they are there all the time.  Tom Lombardo, a fellow Board member on the Merritt Parkway Conservancy, recently conducted an unscientific survey to quantify the problem.

In a single hour one weekday morning he logged 212 trucks, buses and commercial vehicles traveling in both directions on the highway. That’s more than three per minute.  Now compare that number with the fact that State Police issued only 581 tickets to trucks on the Parkway in all of 2020 and you get a sense of how unenforced this rule is.

Mind you, trucks on the Merritt Parkway are only facing a $90 fine, if caught, which they aren’t… often, until they strike a bridge.  The King Street Bridge in Greenwich was struck 24 times in one year.

State Police are understaffed and spread too thin.  Enforcing the “no trucks” rule isn’t high on their priorities list.

But on Metro-North, rules enforcement should not be the problem it has become, given the staffing of conductors on all trains.  Yet, in the midst of the resurgent COVID pandemic, the railroad is not enforcing a simple rule designed to keep conductors and passengers safe:  wear a face mask.

They’re still wasting money and manpower disinfecting car interiors, wiping down surfaces and spraying the seats.  Never mind that the CDC has been telling us for months there’s only a one in 10,000 chance of getting COVID by surface contact.

Oh, the railroad does a great PR job explaining how to wear a mask, but they don’t enforce what is now a Federal TSA regulation:  wear a face mask or face a fine.

A recent Freedom of Information request of the MTA Police by CTExaminer showed that since last September they have not issued a single ticket to mask rule violators in Connecticut.  Not even one!

Yet I see social media complaints every day, often with pictures, of people on trains riding maskless and not being challenged, let alone ticketed, by Metro-North staff.  In some cases passengers say even the conductors aren’t fully masked.

These reports are duly logged by MTA’s social media watchers, complete with date, time and location information and “reported to supervisors”… and then, like with so many complaints to the railroad, nothing changes.

Are these conductors disciplined? Retrained? Does anyone do anything to stop this potentially life-threatening non-enforcement of a Federal public health rule?  Apparently not, given the growing number of reports we see.

The MTA has seen 136 of their own employees die of COVID since the pandemic began.  They’ve even built them a memorial.  And sure, they’ve passed out thousands of masks to subway, bus and train riders.  But what good are free masks if the rules to wear them aren’t enforced?

The TSA and FAA have issued tens of thousands of dollars in fines in 1300 cases of non-mask wearing on airplanes.  But on Metro-North not a single ticket?  Not one.

If trucks aren’t ticketed on the Merritt Parkway and maskless riders aren’t penalized on the train, people notice the laws aren’t being enforced, and scofflaws rule the roads and rails.

YOU ARE THE TRAFFIC

Stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic the other day on I-95 I grumbled to myself “Where is all this traffic coming from?”   And then I remembere...