December 29, 2023

RED LIGHT, GREEN LIGHT

 Did you ever wonder why our street stoplights designate red as “stop” and green as “go”?  

Well, in the 1840s the British railroads adopted a flag, lamp and semaphore signal system where red meant danger, white meant safety and green indicated proceed with caution.  They took their inspiration from early industrialization where factory machines used red to indicate when equipment was off and green when turned on.  But one time the red glass lens on a signal lamp dropped out of its socket, showing a white light, which then caused a rail collision. 

Traditionally red has evoked danger and green, a more calming influence.  But it was optical science that reinforced the choice.  Red has the longest wavelength in the visible spectrum and is less likely to be interfered with by other light sources in what’s known as “light scattering”.  Think of fog or dust in the air. Red light penetrates best.

By the 1860s traffic conditions in London prompted officials to seek a way of controlling horse-drawn carriages with a signal system and opted for the railroad scheme of color-coded semaphores and lights controlled by a policeman, often perched on a raised kiosk in the middle of the intersection.

You can credit American police officer William Potts for the invention of the first traffic lights in Detroit in 1920.  But back then they were still sequenced by an officer, making traffic control expensive.  Eventually, a timer system was introduced to sequence the flow.  But there was also a system activated by sound.

A microphone was installed on the light pole and when a car approached it would honk its horn and the light would turn green… but just for ten seconds to allow that one car to get through.  You can imagine the problem that was going to create.

Today we use not only timers but some sophisticated measuring devices to sequence traffic lights, including inductive loops.  You’ve probably seen signs of them, buried in the pavement, as you pull up to an intersection,.  They measure the metal in cars as they drive over them, allowing the system to know that a car is there waiting for a green signal.

Even the traffic lights themselves have improved.  They now measure either eight or twelve inches in diameter and must be visible in every lighting condition.  The older incandescent bulbs that illuminated them used to burn at 175 watts and needed constant replacement.  Now they’re being replaced with high endurance LED lamps which give as much light but only require 10 – 25 watts of electricity.

To help the 13 million Americans who are color blind, stoplights are always arranged with red on top and green on the bottom.

Given the sophisticated technology and engineering time spent on designing a stoplight system for an intersection, they’re not cheap.  A fully equipped setup can cost between $250,000 and a half-million dollars with an annual maintenance cost of $8000.  That’s why towns and CDOT are so reluctant to add new lights, despite requests.

 

December 22, 2023

THE SANTAS WHO WEAR BROWN

 Did Santa make it on time this year?  Well, thanks should also go to United Parcel Service, or UPS.

As I wrote a few years ago… When UPS was founded as the American Messenger Company in Seattle in 1907, most deliveries back then were to stores, not customers, and were done on foot or by bicycle.  Adding a Model T to their fleet in 1913, the company started serving neighborhoods.  By 1930 the company expanded to most cities in the East and Midwest, adding delivery by cargo-airline  partnerships to their modes of transportation.

From 1975 to 1982 UPS was headquartered in Greenwich CT and was serving all 48 contiguous states and Puerto Rico.  In 1988 UPS launched its own airline fleet, now the 10th largest in the US and serving 815 destinations worldwide.  In 1991 UPS acquired Mailboxes Etc and re-branded its 5000 independently owned stores as UPS Stores.

But how do they do it?

When a package enters the UPS system it goes first to the closest hub by truck, train (if less than 200 miles) or by air (if farther).  After an initial sort it then goes to the hub nearest the final destination.  UPS operates airport sorting hubs in Philadelphia, Dallas, Ontario CA, Rockford IL and its largest in Louisville KY, known as Worldport. 


Worldport is a five million square foot complex the size of 90 football fields with 300 plane loads of packages arriving 24 hours a day.  The facility can sort 416,000 packages an hour.  Processing time is about ten minutes per package.  It is heavily automated, boasting 33,000 conveyors covering 55 miles in length.

The packages are then shipped again to the hub nearest the destination and trucked to local warehouses.  Here’s where more serious technology comes into play with a system called ORIONOn-Road Integrated Optimization and Navigation.  The software has 80 pages of algorithms combining maps, customer information, traffic conditions, pick-up requests and package priorities to give each driver the fastest route to complete deliveries.

One of ORION’s time savings tricks is avoiding left hand turns for drivers.  Not only are right hand turns faster but they’re safer.  UPS says that saves their drivers 20 million miles of driving, 98 million minutes of idling and 9 million gallons of fuel a year.

UPS vehicles even have their own GPS system giving its drivers detailed information about each destination.  As the driver gets close to the drop-off location the system beeps, telling him (or her) to slow down.


When the big brown truck pulls up in front of your house to make a delivery you’ll notice the driver usually stops the engine.  He doesn’t stroll to your door, he jogs!  With hundreds of deliveries per day per driver, it all adds up.

Sometimes the driver needs you to sign to accept the delivery.  Even that involves some amazing tech… DIAD, the Delivery Information Acquisition Devicea 1.3 pound handheld computer that scans barcodes, collects signatures and stores information about each package.  

So hopefully Santa’s helpers in the brown uniforms have delivered your gifts on time, making for the merriest of Christmases.

 

 

 

December 15, 2023

DO POLITICIANS UNDERSTAND COMMUTERS?

Do the folks in state government know what it’s like to be a commuter?

When’s the last time that Governor Ned Lamont took a train… not for a photo op, but for real?  He does have a home in Greenwich so he could be enjoying the great service on The Hartford Line and Metro-North.  But it seems he’s always driving around in that big (chauffeured) SUV which, by the way, is not electric (despite his calls for Connecticut to “go green” and all-electric by 2035!)

C’mon Governor:  walk the talk!

Or how about our lawmakers?  When the legislature is in session, why aren’t they on the train also?  And why do State Representatives and State Senators all have special license plates for their cars?  Does that give them special parking privileges or an exemption from law enforcement?


Admittedly, if the people we send to Hartford to represent us are all driving, at least they know how bad the roads are… not that they’ve done anything to improve on that gridlock.  But if they took our trains and buses I’m guessing maybe they’d fix what’s wrong there, pronto.

And then there’s the CDOT.  Their beautiful new headquarters in Newington on Berlin Turnpike is serviced by four CT Transit  bus routes, including one from Hartford’s Union (train) Station.  But I wonder how many staffers opt to ride the very mass transit system their agency funds as their giant parking lot always seems full.

Before Michael Bloomberg was elected Mayor of New York City, and quite often while he was in office, he rode on the subways to get to work.  His successors did not.  In Boston, then-Governor Michael Dukakis regularly rode “The T”.

These days they’d probably claim it’s “security” that prevents them from riding mass transit, but that sounds like more of an excuse than explanation.

This week’s column was inspired by DC Mayor Muriel Bowser’s recent admission that she doesn’t even know where her city’s Metro lines run.  I guess she doesn’t ride either?

Does Governor Lamont know what it’s like to ride on standing-room-only Metro-North trains at rush hour?  Or has he tried to take Shore Line East to New London with its four-and-a-half hour gaps in service from New Haven? 


Or consider our state’s bus system:  how many elected officials, even locally, have ridden the buses their constituents rely on every day?  If they haven’t, how can they empathize with what it’s like, let alone fix it?

So who’s to represent the commuter?  Why, the newly formed CPTC, the Connecticut Public Transportation Council, successor to the Commuter Council.  But its Chairman, Jim Gildea, tells me he gets the cold shoulder from the CDOT, no longer invited to media events where the pols wrench their shoulders patting their own backs about how much they’re supporting mass transit.

While the CPTC meets monthly and is always attended by Metro-North’s staff, the CDOT only shows up quarterly.  And when big announcements about schedule changes and such are upcoming, the Council is given no advance notice.

The new year would be a great chance for the folks who write our laws and run our state’s mass transit to change their commuting patterns and understand better what its really like to be a commuter.

December 08, 2023

YOUR TURN: WHY DO YOU HATE I-95


Last week’s column (“Why We Love To Hate I-95”) apparently struck a nerve, generating a lot of comments, some of which I thought I’d share here.

Carolanne wrote “I-95 needs to be re-paved.  Ever notice how uneven the interstate is?  It’s very unsafe.  As for (lack of State) police, thank you Democrats (for defunding law enforcement.)”

Commenting on the highway’s condition, Pam from Darien said “I need to follow up with CDOT about the claim I put in for $350 for repairs to my car after driving on freshly laid pavement this summer.  The black splatters covering my white car had to be removed professionally.  I HATE I-95.”

The biggest number of comments came after my suggestion that, to reduce the use of I-95 by local traffic, some of the road’s 93 exits be closed.

For background, this was an idea studied 20 years ago by the Transportation Strategy Board (TSB).  While some people loved the idea of closing exits (many of which are less than a mile apart), they only wanted to close exits they never used, not of course “their” exits.  So this idea, like so many suggestions of the TSB, went nowhere.

Barb in New London reminded me that the only way to cross the Thames and Connecticut Rivers (and not drive 20 miles out of your way) is to use I-95’s bridges, one of which was in gridlock recently after emergency repairs due to crumbling concrete headers.  She also pointed out that CDOT is not keeping the roadway or breakdown lanes clear of debris… “furniture, dog crates and bags of garbage… sometimes there for days,” she wrote.

But the best email I received was from a retired Traffic and ITS (Intelligent Traffic Systems) engineer now living in Glastonbury.  He writes “I-95 was designed and built over 65 years ago. The world and highway design has changed a lot since then. It’s long past the time that I-95 is brought into the 21st Century but the regional planning agencies who set priorities for spending, have long refused to prioritize improvements.”

He continued…”I remember 40 years ago thinking the state will someday address it but here we are 40 years later and it’s worse than ever. Everyone I know complains about it and says something should be done. So why then, after decades, is nothing being done? That is what should be addressed.  Who is to blame? CTDOT? WestCOG? The Governor? The State Legislature? The towns? This is what the media should be addressing. It’s the only way to break the never ending logjam that has led to more ‘do nothing’ “

Love it or hate it, I-95 is the carotid artery of this state’s economy.  It is vital to all of our lives (even if you never drive on it).  But like many of our own arteries, it’s beyond being clogged.  It’s a heart attack waiting to happen.

 

 


December 01, 2023

WHY WE LOVE TO HATE I-95

Someone recently described me as “the Lewis Black of transportation”:  angry, cynical and sarcastic.   That’s high praise, in my view.  So imagine my surprise that when Lewis performed recently in Waterbury and New London he riffed on the highway we love to hate:  I-95.

“I lived in Connecticut for five years (attending the Yale School of Drama),” he told the crowd.  “There’s nothing more joyous than driving up I-95.  Hooo!  Literally, all they do is repair it.  They’re never going to finish it.  It’s like a state law… in order to get through Connecticut you must spend an hour in your car bitching and moaning.  Now that there’s money for infrastructure, you can count on this going on for the next 100 years.”

See if this list captures the essence of your angst about Connecticut’s busiest highway:

TRAFFIC:     Some 200,000 vehicles a day drive some of the 89 miles of I-95 in Connecticut.  That’s double the original design capacity.  No wonder the road always seems congested, also perhaps because we have…


TOO MANY EXITS:     I-95 is supposed to be an interstate highway but ends up being a short cut for local traffic.  According to the CDOT the average distance driven on I-95, including vehicles going from Florida to Maine, is just 11 miles.  Why are there 93 exits in just 89 miles?  On the New Jersey Turnpike there are only 18 exits over its 117 mile length.

TRUCKS:     Oh, we love to hate them, don’t we?  They clog and hog “our” road and are so heavy they’ve dug track-like ruts in the pavement, creating a kind of cruise control for unaware drivers.  But remember… we put those trucks on the road through our voracious consumption and demand for ever-faster deliveries.

OPERATIONAL LANES:   Ever notice those surprise “extra lanes” between some on-ramps and off-ramps, helping to merge traffic?  They’re great… until some bozo from out of state gets in them and is surprised to find, always at the last minute, that they only run a few hundred yards and they have to merge back into the flow.

BROKEN STREET LIGHTS:       The busiest sections of I-95 are supposed to be illuminated by overhead street lights to increase safety.  But do they work?  Of course not.  Are they ever fixed?  Doesn’t seem so.

SERVICE AREAS:     Local Connecticut drivers are smart enough not to buy gasoline on I-95:  the prices on the highway are 20 – 30 cents higher than local gas stations.  And as for food, did you know that one of the most expensive McDonalds in the US is at the northbound service area in Darien where a Big Mac combo meal costs big bucks… $18?

NOT ENOUGH TROOPERS:       For such a busy highway, there are only a handful of State Troopers on patrol, coping with accidents, breakdowns and, as time allows, chasing after speeders.  If we want to be safe, we need more officers enforcing the traffic rules.

What are your favorite gripes about I-95?  Drop me a line and let me know what I missed.  Meantime… happy motoring!

November 24, 2023

TRAINS, PLANES & AUTOMOBILES

Over Thanksgiving I’ve been musing on some recent developments.

TRAINS:

Are you heading into NYC to go shopping?  Veteran riders will remember when Metro-North would offer “Shopper Specials” trains to handle the crowds, but no more.  The trains may be seeing more passengers but the railroad tells me only that they are “monitoring ridership carefully and (are) prepared to quickly add trains to any of (the) lines if demand calls for it.”  Tell that to the standees on many rush-hour trains.


PLANES:

If you’re one of the 3 million Americans who flew on Sunday, congratulations.  That’s a new one-day record, according to the TSA.  But that’s nothing compared to the 5.7 million New Yorkers who take the subway, bus or commuter rail each day in NYC.  Just saying.

AUTOMOBILES:

What’s really been bothering me this week is the unchecked pedestrian carnage in our city streets caused by rogue drivers. 

In Stamford last week a 74-year-old woman was killed in a hit and run as she crossed the street at 6:15 am, apparently not in a crosswalk.  This follows the slaughter of two restaurant workers last December as they crossed the street in Stamford, in a crosswalk, and were struck by a 24-year-old from Greenwich who didn’t even hit his brakes as he fled the scene.

And last March a 63-year-old Greenwich woman, walking her dog away from the roadway, was killed by a motorist in the Glenville neighborhood.  Pedestrian deaths in other Connecticut cities are just as frequent.

Where are the local police departments?  Why don’t they enforce the law, ticketing jay-walkers and speeding drivers?  Why is walking a game of “Survivor” for people on foot?

As for the state’s plan to require everybody to “go electric” in their car buying by 2035, it seems there is far from universal support for the idea.

This summer DEEP (the Department of Environmental Protection) asked for comments on the plan to ban the sale of petroleum-powered cars and got more than 4000 responses.  While the agency says the public “overwhelmingly supported adoption” of the plan, a further review shows otherwise.

Analysis by The Yankee Institute showed that 900 of those comments came from the same email address in a Bridgeport-style attempt to stuff the ballot box.  Of the remaining responses, hopefully more genuine, 74% opposed the plan and only 25% voiced support.

That regulation can move forward by the vote of just 14 lawmakers later this month, members of the Legislative Regulatory Review Committee.  But if they vote no then the entire General Assembly would have to approve it next year, an election year… if they dare.

I’m guessing nobody is opposed to the cleaner air that would result from such a scheme.  But the price of electric cars and the lack of sufficient charging stations would give many pause when considering its impact on their lives.

And nobody, in this land of steady habits, likes being told what they can and cannot do when it comes to their cars.

 

 

November 17, 2023

MICROTRANSIT

 

Tired of fighting all the traffic and struggling to find parking?  Need to get to the train station, a doctor’s appointment or just want to go out partying on the weekend?  There’s a new solution coming your way:  Microtransit.

The folks at Uber told me awhile back that one-third of all their rides in Connecticut are to or from a train station, what transportation experts call the first / last mile.  But now the state is funding a new, town-based solution:  shared vans for as little as $2 per ride per passenger.

This week the CDOT announced nine pilot projects to bring Microtransit to communities from Stamford to Mystic, from Hartford to New Haven.  To see how this would work, look no further than Norwalk’s WHEELS2U which has been running since 2018.


To grab a ride there all you need is to download their app, plug in your destination and hit “go”.  A van will pick you up in 10-12 minutes for a shared ride, like an Uber Pool.  And you’re not allowed to tip the driver.

Norwalk’s WHEELS2U’s three vans only runs Thursday through Sunday from the afternoon to as late as 11 pm, but they hope to expand those days and hours.

Pre-COVID they’d carry as many as 125 passengers per day but these days it’s more like 30, a number they hope will grow as they’ve just expanded their service area north to the Merritt 7 office district.

Their riders not only go from the train to work but also head for the bars and restaurants, not having to worry about limited parking or less-limited imbibing.

WHEELS2U also operates a commuter service in Westport offering 150 riders a day a lift from their homes to the train stations.  The Westport service, run by Norwalk Transit, hopes to expand to other destinations in town, not just the train stations.

The low fares are not expected to cover operating costs, with the state subsidizing 82% of the cost in Norwalk and 67% in Westport.


“We receive a lot of feedback on our Microtransit services,” says WHEELS2U CEO Matt Pentz.  “People in Westport love it, people in Wilton want it, and our team in Norwalk is very excited about the innovative opportunities that CTDOT is providing though the pilot project”.

In Bridgeport the bus company, GBTA, has also been included in the new grant money. They plan to expand service north to Trumbull with their own app, RIDECO, with rides provided by the local taxi company.

“We don’t have to send a 40 foot bus,” says GBTA CEO Doug Holcomb.  “and as we gather data from the app we can track demand for possible expansion”.

GBTA is anticipating demand from office and factory workers.  Eventually the service may expand to Stratford and Fairfield.

Fixed-route bus service makes sense in densely populated cities but it’s hoped that Microtransit will bring on-demand, semi-mass transit to the smaller, more spread-out communities.

So next time you’re heading out, save on gas and driving / parking woes by thinking small… Microtransit.

November 11, 2023

WHERE'S OUR WI-FI?

Why is Metro-North the only major commuter railroad in the US that doesn’t offer its riders Wi-Fi?   That’s a question I’ve been asking for many years and I still can’t get a straight answer. 

Four years ago the Connecticut legislature gave CDOT $23 million to get Wi-Fi onboard, but it is still not there.  Governor Lamont promised us 5G Wi-Fi, but there’s still zilch.  Why?


A little history of this technology quest might help us to understand.

Ten years ago New Jersey Transit successfully demonstrated Wi-Fi on its new double-decker cars under the leadership of Jim Redeker, then that railroad’s Assistant Executive Director for Technology.  When Redeker came to CDOT he wanted the same tech for Connecticut commuters and told then-Metro-North President Joe Guilietti as much.

Guilietti was reluctant, given the railroad’s bad experience of trying to bring tech to its riders when they introduced pay-cellphones on the trains.  Months after they were installed the tech had advanced so much that everyone had a cellphone in their pocket and those pay-phones sat idle.  Burned by trying to be an “early adopter”, Guilietti hired the consultants at McKinsey to prove why you can’t put Wi-Fi on trains.  Being a good consultant, McKinsey took the pricey contract and told their client, Metro-North, what they wanted to hear.

Never mind that Amtrak has offered free Wi-Fi since 2011, admittedly with some problems, since resolved (too many people and not enough bandwidth).  European railroads have been offering connectivity since 2008, so the tech does exist and it works.

Fast forward to the Lamont administration and guess who’s the new Commissioner of the DOT… that’s right, Joe Guilietti from Metro-North.  Once again, no progress on Wi-Fi… until 2019 when then-State Senator Will Haskell (D – Westport) introduced a bill requiring the railroad to get wired and allocating $23 million to make it happen.

The bill passed and became law and CDOT was given the money.  But we still don’t have Wi-Fi.

Struggling to recover from COVID and still trying to persuade commuters to get back onboard, you’d think that CDOT and Metro-North would embrace Wi-Fi as an enhancement to taking the train.  Imagine how much more productive you’d be on your way to your job.

Even the CDOT’s own “Customer Experience Action Plan” mentions “enhanced wireless connectivity” as item #26 on its long list of initiatives.  Its status?  “In progress”.

The problem is that Wi-Fi on the trains is only as good as the cell signals along the tracks.  Train Wi-Fi doesn’t work with satellites, as airplanes do, but with good old cell signals.

So CDOT seems to be blaming AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile for dragging their feet on installing new cell towers to cover the “dead spots”.  But Amtrak’s Wi-Fi, running on the same tracks, seems to operate just fine.  So what’s the problem?

While CDOT says it remains committed to Wi-Fi and is “evaluating various options” to make it happen, Connecticut commuters are the real losers.  Wi-Fi is everywhere, even in the NYC subways, but not on Metro-North.

Our commuters deserve better.

 

THE MARVELS OF ENGINEERING

As a young man I wanted to become a civil engineer and design the railroads of the future.  So I went to one of the nation’s best engineering schools, Lehigh University, only to find out in my freshman year that I’d need calculus, physics and chemistry.  So I ran quickly to the Arts College and studied sociology. 

Still, my admiration of the work of engineers in designing and running our transportation network has never diminished.  Here are a few recent examples:

CDOT & ABC:

As we rebuild our crumbling interstate highways, the CDOT deserves credit for learning its ABCs… “accelerated bridge construction”.  Over two recent weekends they demolished and replaced two three-lane bridges at exit 17 in Westport with, considering the enormity of the tasks, minimal impact on traffic.


They even finished their work early:  under-promising and over-delivering.

The speed of the work on the $104 million project was enhanced by building the replacement bridges in advance so they could literally slide into place after the old bridge was torn down.  Just imagine the planning, the measuring and tight tolerances.  Yet, the first weekend project (for the northbound bridge) was finished 14 hours earlier than planned.

A similar bridge replacement in Stamford on I-95 in 2019 went just as well, with more such projects to come as Federal dollars rebuild our infrastructure.

METRO-NORTH VS MOTHER NATURE:

The same weekend CDOT was doing its bridge work in Westport, Mother Nature was closing down rail operations on the Hudson line near Scarborough in Westchester County.  A giant landslide poured down the hill, depositing 600 cubic yards of soil and rock on top of the railroad tracks, affecting over a hundred Metro-North trains and dozens of Amtrak trains.

The landslide happened on a Saturday morning, but thanks to the MTA’s engineers and construction crews, 43 hours later the tracks were reopened in time for the Monday morning commute.

An impressive effort, and not the railroad’s first in battling Mother Nature… nor its last.  But again, engineering prowess came to the rescue.

DRONES AT SEA:

The Danish energy company Orsted was embroiled in a labor dispute at the State Pier in New London last week.  The International Longshoremen Assoc (ILA) claims jurisdiction over loading and unloading the vessels there which are carrying the giant components for planned offshore wind farms.

However, thousands of miles away in the North Sea, Orsted is testing use of giant drones to deliver supplies to their offshore sites.  The four-engine drones have an eight and a half foot wingspan and can carry up to 150 pounds of cargo dangling below the craft.  Once carried out to sea over the construction site’s helipad, the drone releases its cargo and heads home.

More amazing engineering, this time with huge implications on jobs.  Drones require an operator but not a ship and expensive crew to complete their work.  If these trials work, that could mean massive cost savings for Orsted and fewer union jobs for seamen.

So, the next time you’re driving or taking a train, think of the engineering that went into that design.  There’s a lot of smart people working very hard behind the scenes to make your trip possible.

October 20, 2023

LASERS VS LEAFS & LOCOS

 It ain’t exactly Star Wars, but Metro-North has some new tech that should make your commute more reliable:  Laser Train!

This $3+ million custom railcar, pulled by a diesel locomotive, is blasting our tracks free of the annual scourge of leaf slime… and doing it at 60 mph.  So impressive is this new car, that the railroad has “wrapped” it in a distinctive blue livery so you’ll notice it when it whizzes by, covering every mile of tracks in the system daily.


Lasers for leaf slime?  Really?

Yes, with the beautiful New England fall comes the annual problem of wet leaves on the tracks, decomposing into pectin, one of the most slippery substances known to man.

So bad was the leaf slime problem in years past that the railroad could have 25% of its fleet out of service as the trains’ onboard computers sensed a loss of traction and locked the wheels’ brakes to stop, grinding flat spots on the wheels, requiring repairs.

You’d be traveling along on your train at speed, hit a slimy patch and feel the train’s computer send the train into emergency braking mode, dumping the air brakes until the train came to a full stop and got re-set.  It wasn’t dangerous, just delaying. The railroad would also lower trains’ speeds in leaf-slime prone areas making more trains late.

This was especially a problem on the Danbury branch, a 397-foot uphill climb from Norwalk to “The Hat City”.  Often, locomotive-pulled trains couldn’t get enough traction so that they had to skip stations like Cannondale just to keep momentum to climb uphill.

You see, on a diesel locomotive there are only eight traction wheels making contact with the rails.  But on the electric M8 cars, every car is a locomotive, so contact with the wheels is spread across the entire train, increasing traction… another good reason to re-electrify the Danbury branch.

Over the years the railroad tried everything to build up traction… from old-school sand dispensers on locomotives to “Water World”, a home-built gizmo blasting the tracks with high pressure water at 48 gallons a minute.  And now, lasers.

Credit goes to the Long Island Railroad for debuting the leaf-blasting lasers first in 2017, but given the LIRR’s flat terrain compared to hilly Connecticut, that railroad could hardly put the tech to a real test.

Last year they tried out the Laser Train in Connecticut and saw a 40% reduction in “slip slide” events, leading to the lowest wheel-regrinding costs on record.  In fact, Metro-North was given a Gold Award for Rail Safety this year by APTA, the American Public Transportation Association. 

So, keep watching for the Laser Train as it blasts its way through the fall, keeping you on-time and safe during your travels.

 

 

 

October 06, 2023

RAIL RIDERS SPEAK UP

 “I thought I lived in a progressive state,” said Luther. 

“My wife and kids live in New London and my three hour rail trip to see them will now take four or five hours.”

Luther was just one of dozens of rail passengers who spoke at public hearings last week on CDOT’s planned service cuts and fare hikes, explaining how policy decisions will impact the lives of real people.

Kelly told how she moved from Phoenix and chose a new home in Madison because of the train service.  “What will these rail cuts mean to the value of our home?” she asked.

Deborah, a disabled rider, said the CDOT “will be sued” because they didn’t survey the impact of their plans on the disabled.

Theater worker Molly said she moved to Bridgeport because of its train service.  But she said service cuts will hurt those in the NYC entertainment business because shows don’t end until 10:30 pm.  “Public transit is a public good,” and should be properly funded, she told the hearing.

Several of those who spoke said their kids rely on trains to get them to school, including Marybeth whose son commutes on Shore Line East in his wheelchair. Now he must be driven to New Haven to make his classes.

Maclean Saar commutes in his wheelchair


Nurse Kristen from Clinton works at Yale New Haven hospital.  She has colleagues who also work in Stamford who may now have to quit their jobs because of the rail cuts.

The proposed cuts on Shore Line East (from 23 to 16 trains per day) will “kill this railroad” said several riders.  “It will lead to a death spiral,” said others, noting that reduced train service will discourage ridership, leading to even lower numbers and prompting further cuts.

Jim Gildea of the Commuter Council said that Shore Line East was never given a chance to rebuild post-COVID.  While Metro-North and the Hartford Line saw service restored to 100% of pre-COVID levels, Shore Line East was only brought back to 66%, so no wonder ridership was down. 

He added that the state’s push for greater transit oriented development (TOD) in SE Connecticut will fail without the trains.  “What developer wants to build next to a train station with no trains?” he asked.

Almost everyone who testified noted how terrible traffic has become on I-95.  Less train service will only worsen that, especially on Fridays, while also adding to pollution.

Several of those who spoke in the virtual hearings bemoaned the lack of in-person hearings in the towns and cities most affected by the plans.  Still others asked what is being done to attract riders back to the trains… or what CDOT will do if riders do return en masse.

Not that any of what was said will make a difference.

While the hearing leader from CDOT said that all testimony would be “carefully reviewed”, these hearings are only a formality.  This is a done deal.  Blame lawmakers who approved Lamont’s budget cuts to CDOT. 

“CDOT wants to run trains,” said Gildea.  “Let’s give them the funding to do it”.

 

September 29, 2023

BRIGHTLINE VS METRO-NORTH

The railroad world is abuzz with the opening of the new Brightline high speed rail service to Orlando, an extension of that private railroad’s existing train service down Florida’s east coast to Miami.  This is really big news.

The $5 billion expansion to Orlando was privately financed but with generous tax exempt bonds the railroad will have to pay back.  Still, this is the first for-profit passenger railroad in the US in forty years.


How does Brightline compare with Metro-North?  Let’s look at the basics:

DISTANCE:     Brightline runs 235 miles from Miami to Orlando compared with Metro-North’s 67 mile run from GCT to New Haven, so they’re quite different.  To be fair let’s just compare Metro-North to Brightline’s initial I-95 corridor service from Miami to West Palm Beach (70 miles).

FREQUENCY:    Brightline trains run once or twice an hour from 7 am to 12 midnight.  Metro-North operates at least hourly from 5 am to about 1 am.

SPEED:    Though Brightline trains do run 125+ mph in some stretches enroute to Orlando, between West Palm and Miami the speed averages about 56 mph due to station stops and track conditions.  Metro-North’s fastest run from New Haven to GCT averages 45 mph on its few super-expresses but more like 35 mph on the regular trains making local stops.

EQUIPMENT:    Ah, that amazing “new train smell”!   Brightline’s seven-coach trains were built (in the US) by Siemens.  They offer 2 by 2 seating for about 60 passengers per car.  The leather seats recline, have power plugs and free Wi-Fi via Starlink satellite (at a smoking-fast 70 Mb/sec).  All Brightline trains are powered by diesel engines.   Metro-North’s M8 all-electric cars were built by Kawaski (also in the US) and started in service in 2011.  They offer 2 x 3 seating for about 100 passengers per car with power plugs in each row but no Wi-Fi… yet.

AMENITIES:   Brightline offers comfy lounges and waiting rooms with snacks and beverages at stations for passengers.  Metro-North offers no station amenities aside from a bench on the platform and, if you’re lucky, a waiting room.

FARES:     Brightline fares between West Palm and Miami start at $41 roundtrip ($84 in first class).  The new railroad also offers big discounts for families and groups.  Commuters can buy discounted 12 and 40 trip tickets.  On Metro-North their New Haven to GCT start at $47 roundtrip with similar discounts for seniors and multi-ride commuters.  But there is no first class on Metro-North.

West Palm Beach Station


FIRST MILE / LAST MILE:    You can’t take the train if you can’t get to the station, so Brightline makes that easy, offering free shuttles to and from their stations as well as car parking.  Metro-North offers parking at CT stations (which are owned by CDOT) and administered by the towns and cities. Some towns have a 5 year waiting list for permits.

SAFETY:    Brightline is the deadliest railroad in the US as it regularly sees collisions at its 315 grade-crossings between Miami and Orlando.  Since its start in 2019, 98 people have died, most of them suicides.  Metro-North also sees a large number of suicides but because there are no grade crossings on the mainline, it’s nearly impossible for its trains crash into cars or trucks.

So yes, Brightline is a big deal in the transportation world.  But it’s not true HSR (high speed rail) in the global sense of the phrase.

 

 

DROWSY DRIVING

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...