November 25, 2021

HOLIDAY GIFTS FOR COMMUTERS

Looking for the perfect holiday gift for a friend who misses their daily commute amid the pandemic?  Consider an item from the exclusive Cameron Commuter Collection:

SCENTED CANDLES:      Nothing says the holidays like a fragrant candle to remind you of the old days of commuting.  How about the “M2 Lavatory” scent to revisit the pungent smell of the railroad’s old bathrooms.  Or the “Bar Car Memories” fragrance that smells faintly of stale beer and cigars.


For sports fans, there’s the “Yankee Express-ions”, which smells like sweaty baseball fans tailgating on their way to the game.  Or the “Burning Brakes” scent that has just a hint of fried railcar asbestos brake pads.  And who wouldn’t enjoy the “Dainty Diesel” candles to relive that great scent of exhaust fumes in the morning as you crawl down I-95, bumper-to-bumper, behind a spewing truck?

FAMILIAR FOODS:          If you miss snack shopping at Grand Central there’s the “Day Old Zaro’s Bagel Bag” filled with rock-hard baked goods.  Or the “DD Delight”, a bag of month-old donuts found under my car’s front seat… stale, but surprisingly tasty.

HOME DECORATION:      Or how about a collection of old, graffiti-covered advertising posters from the railcar interiors.  Maybe you’ll score the rare “If You See Something, Say Something” posters from the time when all we had to worry about were terrorists.  And for the serious collector on your list, there’s a limited selection of salvaged 2 x 3 seats from the old, scrapped M2 cars, perfect for your rec room or man cave.

If you appreciate fine art chose the “Oh No SoNo Bridge” portrait showing the 125-year-old railroad bridge stuck in the open position on a hot summer’s day. 

HIGH TECH:           Tired of your car’s GPS ‘voice’?  Load our new “Roadway Romp” package that, no matter the real road conditions, offers a friendly voice keeps saying “no delays ahead”, bringing you peace of mind in any type of traffic.

And for real railroading nostalgia, check out the “Virtual Reality” metasphere bundle complete with 3D goggles playing a two-hour video loop of a crowded train ride with conductors collecting tickets while your commuter-neighbors jabber at high volume on their cell phones.  Ah, such happy memories.

And brand new this year, a CD collection of the Yale Wiffenpoof glee club performing on the 5:45 AM train enroute to a concert in the city.  

You’ll smile ear to ear when the enthusiastic young a capella group does its renditions of such classics as “Silent Night”, right there in the Quiet Car, as shocked commuters try to catch a nap on the way to work.

COVID COLLECTION:      To commemorate our fight against the pandemic, don’t miss the “Metro-North Mask Mayhem” bundle, a hand-curated collection of slightly used face masks only worn once around the neck of the unvaxed.  They’re guaranteed to be as fresh smelling as they day they were incorrectly worn.


There are no supply chain issues with the Cameron Commuter Collection, all domestically sourced, recycled, mold-removed and guaranteed to please the pickiest of your ex-commuter friends.

Happy holidays!

November 19, 2021

METAMORPHOSIS

Don't look now, but we're making history.  The changing forces now at work in our society, including our transportation network, will have a profound effect on our lives for decades to come.

THE BIG QUIT:      According to federal statistics, 4 million people quit their jobs in July of this year, with almost 11 million jobs nationwide now unfilled.  As a result, our ports are jammed, the supply chain broken and holiday purchases seem in peril.  Don’t expect any bargains for Christmas.

Why the huge turnover in jobs?  I think a lot of it has been soul-searching amid the pandemic as people try to seek that illusory work-life balance. But it’s clearly a seller’s market for talent.

THE END OF COMMUTING ?:    Transportation used to equal communications.  Now you don’t need to go to work to do your job.  As I predicted last December, I don’t think passenger levels on Metro-North will return to pre-COVID levels for many years.  Some think it may take a decade.   To date, Metro-North ridership is only back to about 50% and not increasing.

CROWDING & COMPLAINTS:              Even at these reduced ridership levels, many trains are jammed, especially at rush hour. (So much for social distancing.) That’s because full service has not been restored and may not be until next year.  Rush hour trains are not running express, lengthening commuting times and not attracting riders back to the rails. The once popular but seldom-enforced Quiet Cars are on hold.  I doubt they’ll be coming back.

Many of those who are heading back to the office are driving instead of taking the train, exacerbating our traffic.  When driving is faster and, in some cases, cheaper than taking the train, the perception of personal safety trumps slow traffic.  (Mind you, I do think riding Metro-North is safe… as long as you remain fully masked.)

As Metro-North is slow to react to commuter demands for better service, savvy entrepreneurs are jumping in to offer commuting alternatives, skimming the creamy 1% off of the top of railroad’s ridership with a one-seat ride to Wall Street.

FARES:        Off-peak fares remain in effect, all day, for now.  But even  pre-COVID with standing-room-only conditions, the railroad was still losing money.  In 2019 mainline trains subsidized every ticket by $3. Branch line trains’ subsidies were much higher… $17 per ride on the Danbury branch, $49 per ride on Shore Line East.

With ridership now only at 50%, just double those subsidy numbers and you can see how much the railroad is losing. Who will make up the difference?

UNCLE SAM:         Yes, the federal government has kept mass transit rolling, but unless ridership returns those subsidies cannot last forever.  Metro-North’s parent. the MTA, has promised no service cuts, no layoffs and no fare increase… for now.

The historic federal infrastructure bill may pump more money into those subsidies.  But that money was supposed to “build back better”, repairing and renewing.  If your house has a leaky roof, you don’t take out a second mortgage to buy tarps and buckets when you should be repairing the roof.

THE BRAIN DRAIN:         Before Connecticut DOT can start spending the billions  of dollars coming our way in the infrastructure bill it has to deal with its own staffing problem.  CDOT Commissioner Joe Guilietti says his agency has 1100 highly skilled, well-paying jobs to fill, many of them due to a long-anticipated 30 – 40% retirement rate of senior staffers cashing out for their fat state pensions.

So, this Thanksgiving we have much to be grateful for… but so much to still worry about.

 

November 13, 2021

LEAVES VS LOCOMOTIVES

It sounds like a question on a kid’s quiz show: “How do you stop a train?”

A) Hail it like a cab? B) Pull the emergency brake? C) Put wet leaves on the track?

If you chose “C”, you were correct… and you must be a regular commuter on Metro-North.


This is the time of year that tries train engineers’ souls and commuters’ patience. On a single day one recent fall, 60 rush-hour trains were delayed by “slippery rails” when wet leaves caused trains to “slip-slide” on their usually solid tracks.

You may not realize it, but the flanged wheel of a train contacts the rail only on a surface area the size of a dime. That’s why trains can move so smoothly with minimal power… riding a small, but firm area of friction.

But when the leaves fall and get wet, they are ground into one of the slipperiest substances known to man, a compound called pectin. As the train rolls along, its braking computer senses the slip and tries to apply the disc brakes, just like your cars ABS system.


But often the brakes are applied so hard that a locked wheel is ground against the track, creating a flat spot on the usually round surface. In years past these flat wheel

issues have taken 25% of cars out of service for regrinding.


Sophisticated train computers don’t like it when they think the train can’t stop so, on the new M8 cars running, the railroad had to reprogram the safety systems to reassure them the train wasn’t out of control and didn’t need emergency braking.

Worse yet, on some lines the slippery leaves can virtually leave the trains unable to move. Case in point, the Danbury branch line which is an almost continual up-hill climb from Norwalk to “The Hat City”, 397 feet above sea level. On this branch, diesel locomotive-pulled trains often can’t stop on hills at stations like Cannondale, so on some days they skip such stops and make a running start for the steeper climbs.

On an MU (multiple-unit electric) mainline train, all cars are locomotives, spreading out the traction-power the full length of the train. But on a branch line, a single Genesis locomotive weighing 120+ tons has only eight wheels touching the track, seeking enough traction to pull a fully loaded eight car train. That means eight dime-sized points of friction for a multi-ton load.

Sometimes the solution is as simple as sand dropped from special hoppers on the train just in front of the drive-wheels. The resulting friction gets the train going or helps it stop.

Mind you, this is a problem for railroads worldwide, not just here in the northeast.

Of late, Metro-North has brought in heavier armament… a specially designed car dubbed “Water World” equipped with high pressure hoses that blast the tracks free of the gooey mess.


They’re also experimenting with chemical sprays. And one inventor in the UK is even proposing to zap the goo off the rails with
lasers!

So in the fall as we appreciate the gorgeous foliage, remember the words of Paul Simon during your next ride on Metro-North: “Slip sliding away, slip sliding away. You know the nearer your destination, the more you’re slip sliding away.”

November 06, 2021

A GOOD WEEK FOR TRANSPORTATION

Last week was a good one for our transportation future, on several fronts.

First, of course, was Congress finally passing the massive infrastructure bill.  This once-in-a-generation, trillion-dollar package will bring a massive rebuilding of our crumbling bridges and highways as well as expansion of the nation’s power grid and internet infrastructure.  It will also invest in the ways we must prepare for the impact of global warming.

The bill will also mean thousands of construction jobs over the next decade, what the White House called a “blue collar blueprint” for  decades-delayed repair and enhancement of the nation’s infrastructure.

For rail riders there will be $66 billion invested in expansion and upgrades, the biggest federal investment since the creation of Amtrak in the early 70’s.  Almost half of that amount will be pumped into the Northeast Corridor from DC to Boston, which already sees some 2200 trains each day.

All of this we will benefit from in the years to come.  But in our more immediate future is the project that’s been happening right under our feet at Grand Central since 2006… a new rail station.


Yes, the MTA’s much delayed, terribly-over-budget East Side Access project to bring the LIRR into GCT is all but done and should be opened late next year.  Though this $11 billion subterranean behemoth won’t be home to any trains from Connecticut it will have a profound effect on our train service.

The new station in Grand Central’s lower, lower, lower level is built hundreds of feet below Vanderbilt Avenue just to the west of GCT itself.  It was literally carved out of solid rock and connects to a tunnel built under the Park Avenue line served by Metro-North, another tunnel under the East River and ends up in Queens.


The station will measure 350,000 sq ft serving 24 LIRR trains an hour on eight tracks.  To access the station, you’ll take several escalators from GCT’s lower level, deep down into the bedrock, served by dozens of shops.  The MTA says the new station will save LIRR commuters 40 minutes travel time from Queens if they’re heading to Manhattan’s east side.

What’s in it for Connecticut commuters?  Actually, a faster ride to the West Side.

By moving some LIRR trains out of Penn Station and sending them to GCT, some Metro-North trains will be able to travel from Connecticut directly to Penn Station by way of the Bronx, the Hells Gate Bridge and the East River tunnels, a route now exclusively used by Amtrak.

That new routing will actually be a faster route to midtown Manhattan than the current Grand Central routing.  It will also mean Penn Station connections to Amtrak to the north and west and NJ Transit deep into the Garden State.


As Manhattan’s West Side expands with more offices, many of them built over the LIRR yards, Connecticut commuters will see this new Penn Station service as an attraction.

More spending on rail nationwide and a new train station at GCT and service to the West Side… as I say, it was a good week for transportation.

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...